Last night I introduced a friend of mine to the 2008 movie Speed Racer. He’s about a half generation or so younger than me, in his early 40s, but similar enough in age that he remembers the old TV series fondly.

When I was a kid, I would run home every day from school because at 3:30 Speed Racer, the old Japanese anime, would come on. It was followed by another favorite, Star Blazers, these older shows having been dumped for cheap on local broadcasters out of Philadelphia. Speed Racer was a corny show about a young race car driver who got involved in all sorts of crime-fighting, all while trying to finish races. His car, the Mach 5, was a marvelous GT two-seater with jump jacks, sawblades to cut through obstacles, and other high-tech innovations. It was wonderfully stupid (and on a more recent view, glacially paced by today’s standards…)

I didn’t know a single kid who didn’t like the show. It was popular enough Hot Wheels kicked out their notoriously close to copyright infringement “Second Wind” car. (And yes…I’ve had this since I was a kid.)

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I was highly skeptical when I heard the then-Wachowski Brothers were doing a movie. I had liked The Matrix, but the sequels had been unimpressive, for me. Right before release, Warner Brothers dropped the first seventeen minutes online and was surprised to find that the directors just might have actually managed to capture the essence of the old show. I was in the theater that first show with maybe a dozen other people. For the next two hours, I was assaulted by a frenzy of color and sound, an amazing score by Michael Giacchino (this century’s John Williams…). This kaleidoscope of color and computer generated imagery was derided by a number of the critics. “Twelve-year-old boys should be wowed, but for the rest of us, it will depend on your appetite for eye candy…” was Tom Charity’s comment on CNN.com, and in that blurb he captures the challenge of the movie: Yes, the colors are cartoon bright, the world they build is both that of the 1960s and some alternate future, the technologies are ridiculous…but this is a movie about a guy with a car with f***ing sawblades that pop out the front! His dismissal of this as something for twelve year old boys was exactly the point when I had watched the preview online. This is the world when you were eight or ten or twelve, when everything was possible. This is the world of the Hot Wheels tracks you built, when you drove your Matchboxes up the side of that cliff (played by the arm of your mom’s couch); if you pay attention, you’ll see some of the race tracks are those toy racetracks from when you were a kid!

You have to watch the movie as that kid you have to be. If you do, you can look past the eye candy, and what you get is an earnest and beautiful movie about a young man coming of age, and his family’s difficulty in accepting this. But accept it they do, and they go on to help him achieve his goals, despite the pain and fear they suffer in doing so.

Speed Racer is the second of three sons to Pops Racer (brilliantly played by John Goodman). The whole family is racing obsessed, but not for money, for the pure joy of it. The eldest brother, Rex, is a superb driver who gets caught up in the criminal element of the racing world and fakes his own death to protect them. Rex’s seeming fate, for them, provided a lot of the drama for the movie when Speed cuts out on his own to “be the best”, but is confronted with the villains of the piece, a racing sponsor E.P. Arnold Royalton. Royalton looks to co-opt Speed and when he doesn’t play along, he seeks to ruin the Racer family.

During one of the meetings, Speed tries to explain this childlike world that the movie presents and the Racers represent. At the end of a heart-felt speech, Royalton laughs in his face and says, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that sickening bit of schmaltz…are you ready to put away your toys and become a real race car driver?” The villain isn’t just a corporate bigwig who sponsors races and fixes them for his enrichment, he’s the real world, seeking to crush the joy and innocence out of us. The Wachowskis had anticipated exactly the tack many of the reviewers you can read on Rotten Tomatoes take: the movie isn’t serious. It’s cheesy. It’s too bright, colorful, energetic, simple-minded. That was the challenge of the movie, to accept this childish world as you did when you were running home to watch Speed take on some guy in an improbably fast race car that was bent on some kind of evil.

The fight isn’t just Speed against the corrupt machine behind racing. He’s the inner child fighting against a reality that wants to break up your family, crush your dreams, and consign you to mediocrity.

Textually, it is a masterpiece. Visually, the eye candy is designed to pull the viewer through the story, and even this is a tremendous feat. I’ll leave that to someone who covers this better than I will:

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