Go, Speed Racer, Go!

>> Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Last Friday while we were in Lexington for the Bluegrass Book Festival we got out to see Speed Racer, the movie. I absolutely loved it. Visually, it's a treat. The characters and cars leap out of their anime show into live action with all the vibrant color of a cartoon, and the pacing is, for the most part, pretty crazy fast. Also, there are ninjas.

I realize in writing this that I am being totally fanboy here, and that this movie will not appeal to everyone. Jo (age 5) and I (age 5 mentally) loved it. Wendi, not so much. She'll be the first to agree though that the movie is gorgeous to look at--we spent half the movie whispering and pointing at hypercool costumes, the jaw-dropping, glee-inspiring architecture, and the art-deco wallpapers we would SO buy right now for the new house.

But the plot was, surprisingly, more complicated than it should have been, the driving sequences were often so fast and chaotic they were hard to follow, and while I personally loved the literal translation of the anime characters, that direct interpretation worked against them as well. The movie was very cartoony, which rubs some people the wrong way. (See Dick Tracy and Sin City.)

The Speed Racer movie was weirdly nostalgic for me. I was never a die hard fan of Speed Racer, mostly because I rarely caught it on television. One of my earliest memories, however, is of being in a camper--did my grandparents on my Dad's side own a camper in a trailer park when I was little?--and trying to tune their little black and white television to something--anything--to relieve the boredom of sitting around in a camper.

I found Speed Racer. I remember only bits and pieces: The car, the little kid with the monkey, Trixie in her helicopter. Speed Racer was the first experience I and most other American kids had with anime. We didn't even know what anime was. But whatever this was, it was something different than the cartoons we could see on Saturday mornings. It was drawn differently. The characters acted differently. Sometimes they would jump around and wave their arms like they were hopped up on sodas, then go back to being normal just as quickly. They talked fast, ssomehow managing to squeeze five minutes of dialogue into the space of thirty seconds. And what the heck was up with that monkey?

Fast forward three decades, and I'm sitting in a movie theater as an adult and recognizing, from somewhere way back in the dark recesses of my earliest memories, the theme song. I find I can even sing part of it. A grin crosses my face when I see Speed and Racer X--I know who he really is!--and Spritle and that dang monkey, and Trixie . . . and by the time we see the Mach 5 impossibly spinning and jumping and bouncing around a racetrack in brazen defiance of the laws of physics, I'm smiling ear to ear.

So add Speed Racer to my list of unabashed guilty-pleasure films, right up there with Tron and Charlie's Angels.

Oh, and for a fascinating look at what the Speed Racer cartoon was like in Japan in the 1960s before it got edited and translated for American audiences, check out the Wikipedia entry for the Speed Racer anime. It was wild to find out the show's inspiration was a mash-up of two very different 1960s pop-icons: Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, and James Bond in Goldfinger!


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