In Defense of 'Speed Racer'

Speed Racer 2008 Still - Photofest - H 2017
Warner Bros./Photofest
With 'Ghost in the Shell' in theaters, it's time to rethink the maligned 2008 anime adaptation.

Ghost in the Shell has downloaded to theaters, and Paramount is hoping the techno-action film avoids the land mines of other recent anime-to-live-action movies.

With that in mind, it's time to reconsider one of the films that was ravaged by critics at the time, but deserves a second look. No, we're not talking about M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. We are talking about Speed Racer.

The Speed Racer anime took the freewheeling, car-obsessed 1960s era and mixed it with action and adventure. As it crossed the ocean to America, it was tailor-made for Saturday-morning fun. Unintentionally poor dubs and stilted animation make the relic quaint to watch now, but it’s easy to see why the live-action project was in development hell for years.

Then came the Wachowskis.

Just years after the Matrix series and V for Vendetta elevated the Wachowskis to sci-fi royalty, the siblings had pockets full of Neo Bucks, and they were able to pursue vanity projects.

So they went from the shiny leather and dour visual style of The Matrix to Speed Racer's full contrast and splashy color.

It was just like a cartoon.

There are many troubling elements in Speed Racer, front and center of which was the casting of Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer — a whitewashed casting trend that continues to plague anime and comic book adaptations, from Dragonball: Evolution to Ghost in the Shell.

But there's also plenty to admire.

An editing and compositing master class, each shot of Speed Racer lingers for mere flashes, with overlaid background and foreground action. It’s clear the directors are playing up the manga and animated style — and translating that to film as best as possible. Winks and nods to the drifting of The Fast and the Furious and Mario Kart’s lightning-bolt and spiked-shell whimsy are intentional and effective.

Admittedly, outlandish costumes and absurd colors clash with "so expensive it’s bad CGI" — creating a visual mess at times. While Dragonball: Evolution tried to Americanize something very Japanese, Speed Racer tried to perform a PIT maneuver on the viewers' eyes.

Which isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s just its own thing.

Despite the fileting it got from critics and its woeful box-office returns, Speed Racer's distinctive visual style has gone on to be cribbed by other films. Similar rat-a-tat edits and jelly-bean color coordination can be seen in The Lego Movie and are even referenced in gaming — such as the retro-infused styling of the Fallout series and clean lines descending into chaos in Portal.

No doubt, this kind of compositing and editing has made an impression on visual-effects artists.

Sure, it makes sense that history has been unkind to Speed Racer. But occasionally it's perfectly fine to have dessert for dinner, even if it is a little decadent.