Stop Steering and Start Driving: Ten Years Later, “Speed Racer” Is Still the Best Movie About Agency in the Era of Late Capitalism
On its tenth birthday, let’s look past its genre and appreciate the unrivaled visual flair, debilitatingly honest coming-of-age narrative, and anti-corporate rage of Speed Racer, a kids movie.
There’s no genre easier to dismiss than the computer–animated film adaptation of a beloved cartoon on the verge of extinction, particularly when their seizure-inducing color palettes eliminate any semblance of subtlety in announcing the resuscitation of their subjects’ relevance. This epidemic is addressed in an episode of the sketch comedy show The Birthday Boys, in which an enthusiastic father introduces his kids to his favorite childhood cartoon via a brand new live action film adaptation starring Jack Black, only to find that the series has been commandeered by crude modernity. Because the source material isn’t nearly stimulating enough to capture the attention of a contemporary TV-Y7 audience, the reboot familiarly soars on the success of a gratuitous pop song and corresponding dance move.
Such is the fate of just about every non-fictitious equivalent to The Birthday Boys’ Shworvels—in fact, it’s become increasingly difficult to find quality theater-going experiences for the whole family since video games have set the stimulation bar so unbelievably high. The past decade has seen movies like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Hugo serve as responsible entertainment from competent filmmakers dedicated to teaching screen literacy to their young audiences, but unfortunately have proven more appealing to mature demographics. Is there still room for morality tales and thoughtful coming-of-age stories in children’s movies that actually appeal to children, or are we doomed to repeat history as determined by market research’s insistence that Dreamworks’ fart-joke portfolio sells better than Pixar’s monopoly on wholesome pre-pubescent existentialism?
Widely regarded as one of the worst offenders, the Wachowski siblings’ Speed Racer crashed through theaters in a blur of imitation-fruit-flavored FDA-food-dye coloring in 2008, seemingly only making a lasting impact with an impressive residency in the Walmart $5 DVD bin amidst the complete filmography of Dane Cook. Audiences unfamiliar with the Racer family’s incomprehensible configuration (whose backstory is more ambiguous: Chim-Chim’s or Sparky’s?)—as well as those possessing fond memories distorted by forty years’ time—were likely at sea from the opening montage, when we’re tossed immediately into pedal-to-the-metal action interwoven with cursory informative flashbacks foreshadowing much of the film’s spatial-continuum-obliterating montagery.
At the time of its release, Hollywood was on the cusp of a comic-book-to-live-action-film renaissance as initiated by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man reboot, which paved the way for a status quo of biannual box-office-annihilating installments via numerous incestuous superhero franchises and their offshoots of offshoots. While the Marvel universe took a few tries to translate pulpy onomatopoeia to the big screen sans irony—and Christopher Nolan’s noir-wary Batman fell far outside the parameters of the superhero genre—the Wachowskis’ story of Speed stands out as the decade’s most successful experiment in bringing cartoons to life, with every garbled grunt, flash of color, and incomprehensible defiance of automotive physics serving as a remarkably well-translated homage to Tatsuo Yoshida’s original series.
As much as it sold itself as being among this new wave of flamboyant action movies, Speed Racer can just as easily be identified as a response to the ebbing wave of American indie crossovers chronicling family dysfunction (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, etc.), landing in direct contrast by featuring a Godfather-like dedication to family values. Above all, it’s a film that celebrates the Racer family’s bond—from the opening flashbacks spelling out Speed’s allegiance to his childhood girlfriend, Trixie, and his adoration for his older brother, the tragically disappeared Rex Racer (again, no indication of Speed’s relationship to Chim-Chim or Sparky, who is apparently an Aussie in his thirties), to the movie’s end credits acknowledging the “life-giving support” of the Wachowskis’ family. The Racers clearly function on mutual respect as demonstrated by Speed in the dramatic opening scene where he purposefully lays off the gas inches before crossing the finish line in order to preserve his older brother’s record for the circuit, a single tear running down his (and our) cheek.
Whereas the show failed to (logically) connect the sport of stock car racing with world domination, the Wachowskis (logically) identify late capitalism’s corporatization of professional sports as a real-world oppression of what was once simply a game.
The opposing forces in the film, as in the series its based on, are tied to a conspiratorial coalition whose end goal is to rule and/or destroy the world. But whereas the show failed to (logically) connect the sport of stock car racing with world domination, the Wachowskis (logically) identify late capitalism’s corporatization of professional sports as a real-world oppression of what was once simply a game. This conflict between Speed’s passion for his vocation and capitalism’s ongoing seduction to turn that passion into a bankable business is the primary focus of the film, which more broadly serves as the quintessential coming-of-age narrative for any contemporary athletes, artists, tradespeople, or—in a very conceivable autobiographical reading—filmmakers.
When corporate sponsors descend upon the Racers’ modest household at the beginning of the movie, it’s the preteen Spritle who slams the phone down before they can even get a word out, proving early on just how deeply ingrained the family’s independent spirit is. With a familiar biblical narrative of prolonged temptation, Speed allows himself just enough indulgence to learn the mechanics of the capitalist machine through the impossibly posh E.P. Royalton’s incessant luring: the corruption of the racing league’s fixed matches, the puppetry behind all of his idols’ greatest victories, the literal manufacturing of winning vehicles and the rigorous training of their drivers as made possible by infinite financial resources (it’s a tough pill to swallow when Speed learns that Ben Burns and “Cannonball” Jack Taylor are not at all the men they play on TV). By entertaining Royalton’s offer, Speed ultimately learns exactly why he was raised the way he was—all the while offering young viewers a glimpse into the hideous mechanics which govern much of the modern world.
In the movie’s climax, Speed’s car dies in the middle of the Grand Prix race, where a million-dollar bounty put on his head by Royalton has made him the primary target for all of the race’s other entrants. In this intense moment of introspection he cancels out all the noise of the arena, of his competitors, of his past, and even of his family in order to listen to one thing only: his car. With the tools passed down from a previous generation of Racers, and those learned through resolute rebellion against them, Speed is able to identify exactly what his car—read: his passion—needs, jolting it back to life and re-entering the race. What follows is nothing short of transcendent; Speed’s car bouncing off all others as he drags himself to the finish line, the seizure-inducing imagery swirling to reflect the driver’s moment of enlightened euphoria (not to mention an instantly iconic line, within or without a children’s movie: “Get that weak shit off my track!”).
Without taking itself too seriously (also iconic: “More like a NON-ja”), the Wachowskis effectively treated the original series as a springboard to gently expound upon many of its universe’s anomalies and incongruities (for the love of god, who is Sparky?) while fully committing to presenting it visually as more of a video game than a traditional film. Yes, Speed Racer is a children’s movie, but the filmmakers side-stepped the genre’s contemporary conventions by demoting Speed’s kid brother and his pet monkey to an afterthought, mostly inessential to the movie aside from their attracting a younger median audience. The Wachowskis opted not to condescend to its Spritle-aged viewers with yet another villain ambiguously determined to rule the world outside of an all-too-real corporate backdrop. It’s brutally honest and incredibly bleak in being so, but just as redemptive in celebrating the attainable possibility of personal fulfillment. FL