Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer, gaining cult status after an initial mediocre release.  Speed Racer (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008) was written and directed by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, and produced by the Wachowskis, Joel Silver, and Grant Hill. It stars Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer himself, Matthew Fox as Racer X, and Christina Ricci as Trixie. Recently, there has been some fondness in remembering this movie, and it is easy to see why. The movie has fantastically colorful visuals, animated editing, and a cartoonish but futuristic aesthetic. However, while Speed Racer (2008) implements unique effects, its generic writing lacks the iconic charm of the original anime.

Spoiler-Free Synopsis Of Speed Racer: The Movie Versus The Anime

The film Speed Racer follows 18-year-old Speed, a racer whose love of cars came with his upbringing in the Racer family. The movie focusses on Speed’s family as they continue to heal from the death of Speed’s older brother Rex, who Speed developed his early love of racing with.  The Racer family’s company, Racer Motors, builds custom race cars with special features. When Royalton Industries attempts to buy out the Racer’s company and hire Speed, Speed declines, wanting only to race for his family. 

The Mach 6 on a race track from the live action movie.
Credit: Warner Bros

Royalton took revenge by targeting Speed to be attacked on the racetrack, and eventually has Racer Motors sued. From there, Inspector Detector and the mysterious masked Racer X scout Speed.  Speed agrees to race undercover and expose corruption in the racing world, but faces more betrayals and dangers. The movie is of course based on the 1960s anime Speed Racer. Before continuing, let’s take a look at the source material.

Original Speed Racer, 1967

Speed Racer, the western dub of the hit anime Mach GoGoGo (created by Tatsuo Yoshida), came over to the States in the late 60s.  As one of the early anime to hit the American mainstream, the series is well known and remembered by many Gen-Xers.  It remains an iconic anime for its theme song, action, design, and dub full of extreme efforts (like Speed’s ever exaggerated gasp) which often parodied. While known primarily as a racing anime, Speed Racer is also a crime and mystery series. 

Anime S posing near the Mach 5, from the theme song.
Credit: Tatsunoko Production Company

Speed works undercover in races to gather intel for the police, independently takes down crooks, and races internationally where he becomes involved in political disputes.  As the series was inspired in part by James Bond, the secret agent elements are evident with Speed and his Mach 5, which is equipped with gadgets. Additionally, Racer X is an undercover agent who carries a bad reputation to help him get closer to criminals. From ghost cars and ninja thieves to revenge-seeking automotive acrobats, Speed Racer is episodic with mysteries that revolve around car races. The plots and characters all connect through various races, which are unique to each story’s different setting and stakes. Speed Racer explores many different hazards and types of cars, which keeps all the racing fresh.   

Speed Racer‘s Lukewarm Writing

The writing of Speed Racer (2008) is bland and forgettable, especially when compared to the source material. However, they did a few things that not only were accurate to the anime but added depth to the movie. The film focusses on the family aspect of Speed Racer and builds upon the Speed’s relationship with his older brother, Rex. The opening rally conveys Rex’s absence when Speed races against his brother’s record. Here, editing shows Rex as a ghostly figure on the same track. Rex’s memory is a large part of Speed’s character and how he interacts with his family.

The live action Racer family at a breakfast table with the owner of Royalton Industries sitting center.
Credit: Warner Bros.

The themes of togetherness and healing from loss are about as far as the movie’s compelling writing goes. The main conflict is the Racer family attempting to hold their own against corrupt racing corporations.  As the movie doesn’t expand on this basic concept, it feels generic when the visuals are taken away.  And with many plots to lift from the anime that are just as wild as the movie’s visuals, it’s a bit odd that the film opted to have a rather generic plot.

Racer X Steals The Show, But It Isn’t Enough

Characters suffer the most in Speed Racer‘s writing. These characters are extremely proactive in the anime, particularly Speed who is a playful, gung-ho daredevil. He is an emotional character, which helps the races feel engaging. Funny as they are, Speed’s dramatic reactions in the anime help convey the danger he is experiencing. But Hirsch’s Speed is passive and soft-spoken throughout the film. Aside from not resembling Speed’s personality, there were no real character-defining details to make this Speed his own character. Also surprisingly empty is John Goodman, as the hotheaded Pops Racer, who’s performance hardly goes beyond being mildly irritable. Trixie’s character makes little to no impact on Speed or the plot. 

Racer X and Inspector Detector from the live action movie.
Matthew Fox as Racer X and Benno Fürmann as Inspector Detector. Credit: Warner Bros.

An exception to the bland protagonist team is Matthew Fox as Racer X, who stands out as one of the few characters who looks, sounds, and acts like his animated counterpart while adding more depth to his work as an undercover racing agent. These otherwise subdued performances don’t match the animated world that acts as their backdrop. Without strong characters to root for, the intense races are not compelling to watch.

Speed Racer‘s Production: A Double-Edged Sword

I found the aesthetic fun and refreshing after the popularization of gritty action films. Speed Racer’s visuals take on an animated, almost video game effect. The movie commits to a cartoony, pop cyber-future world and spends a lot of attention utilizing this aesthetic into editing, backgrounds, and racing. Overlapping cutouts edited over race footage creates a cacophony of information and action. This chaos adds to the suspense and thrill of the race. 

One of the CGI metropolises in the Speed Racer film.
Credit: Warner Bros.

Though I feel it is important to note that viewers could find it overwhelming to watch if sensitive to a lot of flashing lights and movement.  The movie also has a few shoutouts to the anime like the use of the English and Japanese theme songs, original sound effects, and the inclusion of the Mammoth car and antagonist Snake Oiler.

Speed Suffers From The Film’s Clashing Tones

A close up of Hirsch in "Speed Racer" overlapping footage of cars racing in a desert.
Credit: Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, this is also one of the movie’s main cons in regards to the weak writing, as our protagonist Speed is drowned out.  As I’ve stated, Hirsch’s performance as Speed is much more subdued than his sassy animated counterpart. Additionally, his visual styling is plain compared to the louder (visually and literally) characters around him. Even his family, similarly passive in performance, look colorful and stylized to match their surreal surroundings.  But for some reason, Speed looks far too average and “real”. When paired with underwhelming characterization, Speed cannot compete with the rest of the movie to be a compelling protagonist. The film clearly prioritized special effects over the plot and characters.

Did We Really Need Speed Racer 2008?

Speed Racer (2008) is good for casual viewing and warrants appreciation for the intense but campy editing and CGI. However, the special effects overshadow the plot and characters. The boring script proves a huge missed opportunity, seeing as Speed Racer has a lot to offer with fun mysteries and characters. While the movie pays homage in some ways to the source material, the script and characters were generic enough that it could have easily not been a Speed Racer movie at all. CGI and effects cannot make up for the lack of interesting characters.

The movie has its own aesthetic, but the original anime proves more exciting with memorable plots and characters. Interested in more live-action adaptations of anime? Check out this review of the recent Netflix adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note.