How can one bring a cartoon to life?
Flesh-and-blood actors have many physical limitations, which means that adapting cartoons for the big screen in a live-action format runs the risk of diminishing their zaniness and elasticity. John Goodman’s career offers two different examples of how a cartoon adaptation can succeed or fail.
The first was a mostly forgettable live-action Flintstones, which tried to bring dramatic depth and complexity to characters intended as parodies in the first place. Suffice to say, it sank like a stone with critics and, despite making money in its initial release, has vanished from our pop-cultural memory.
But Goodman’s second cartoon adaptation offers very different lessons, soaring on the strengths of its vivid splashes of color and bold editing choices. This 2008 movie, directed by the Wachowskis, is tough to describe without sounding cliché, so let’s just hit the accelerator:
Speed Racer is currently streaming on HBO Max. Here’s why this underrated high-octane gem is absolutely worth your time.
The visual aesthetic of Speed Racer overwhelms the eyes like a hot pepper on the tongue, tingling with sensation and inviting the viewer to notice every single detail on screen.
Those involved have offered their own individual assessments of the film’s now-iconic visuals. According to producer Joel Silver, Speed Racer opted for a “retro-future” look, which is like calling the Pacific Ocean “wet” (it’s accurate, but barely scratches the surface). Emile Hirsch, who plays Speed, told Empire Online back in 2007 that the movie was “all green screen,” adding that, “There were no sets, just us and the green background.”
And that’s how it looks in the finished product. Colors abound in Speed Racer, from the bright oranges and greens of Speed’s elementary school to the deep purples of the Royalton industrial factory, which Speed (Emile Hirsch) and his family tour after he’s scouted for a lucrative racing contract.
Neither of these scenes nor any other in Speed Racer seem believable in the sense that an audience member is supposed to believe people go to school and work in these places, which are shot through with a giddy, bubblegum plasticity. But more than instilling a sense of place, these settings each evoke a feeling.
As young Speed starts a life obsessed with cars, the allure of this lifestyle literally encircles him. And the sense of power that E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) feels in his wealth is exaggerated until he appears a truly villainous tycoon. There are other ways to get these feelings across, but very few of them are as bold as the decisions Speed Racer keeps making. The Wachowskis overload the screen with bright lights, big emotions, and bouncing cars, all the better to draw audiences into their vivid vision of the future.
Surrounding all of these visuals is, in fact, a plot. Speed Racer, a single-minded race-car driver, drives in the shadow of his older brother Rex (Scott Porter), a great racer in his own right. Years earlier, Rex walked out on family patriarch Pops Racer (Goodman) and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) to gain a reputation as an elite driver, breaking Speed’s heart before dying in a mysterious accident.
Although Speed’s tenacious demeanor wins him a girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), and the admiration of his younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), it also draws negative attention from the villainous conglomerate that controls automobile racing. Royalton’s villainous CEO tries to win over the entire Racer family with a Wonka-like factory tour, complete with dapper suits for Speed that make Hirsch resemble an old-Hollywood matinee idol.
When Royalton fails to seduce Speed into his pocket, the businessman outlines a plan to destroy the Racers (who own an independent motor shop) in a wonderfully deranged monologue that feels like capitalism as explained by a man rolling over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Nothing is slow in Speed Racer, including the dialogue. A viewer turning away for a moment might find themselves lost, especially during the mile-a-minute racing scenes, but it’s easy enough to fall back into this movie’s whiz-bang operatics.
This seat-of-your-pants approach does emulate how mystifying it must have been for a young American to watch the poorly dubbed Japanese cartoon in the ‘60s, and the new film was not popular with critics. A.O Scott, blasting the movie for the New York Times, wrote that “to be truly sensational, action needs to make sense and to convey the tension and grace of real physical movement, however fanciful the objects in motion may be.”
That’s a test Speed Racer undoubtedly fails. It also had the bad fortune to be released only one week after another high-profile adaptation changed what audiences could expect from action movies: 2008’s Iron Man. While Jon Favreau’s Marvel entry wasn’t exactly grounded in reality, it’s cinéma-vérité compared to Speed Racer.
And yet the Wachowskis’ film has a surprisingly special legacy. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who went on to co-architect the John Wick series, both worked on Speed Racer under the Wachowskis. Though they had first worked with the auteurs on their Matrix trilogy, Stahelski told Collider that working on Speed Racer was “film school all over again,” adding what he and Leitch “know about compositing and doing advanced VFX shots comes from that era.”
Like the also-streaming Time Bandits, another oddball movie ostensibly meant for kids yet executed with a certain cinematic sophistication, Speed Racer challenges what movies can and should feel like. It’s near-weightless and awash in hyperreal action, two qualities that have caught on in Hollywood to some extent since.
But if you’re curious about Speed Racer, know that it actually delivers on that hoariest of filmmaker promises: you’ve truly never seen anything like this.
Speed Racer is now streaming on HBO Max.