They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer.
Five years after wrapping up their groundbreaking Matrix trilogy, Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski traded in their sunglasses and trench coats for fast cars and driving scarves as they sped to the raceway to adapt the popular 1960s anime series Speed Racer.
Armed with a budget of $120 million, the directors set out to do something ambitious: take a story about a young race car driver, named Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), with aspirations of becoming the best driver in the world, and make it something uniquely their own. To do so the directors ditched the rather bland and muted color palette of the original series and replaced it with a world of loud, lucid colors all strung together by a rapid succession of quick edits.
This peculiar style caught critics of the day off guard, leaving them turned off by the film’s assault on the senses. Rather than impressed by the Wachowskis’ efforts to expand the boundaries of cinema, many critics wrote it off as merely a kids movie, too reliant on flashy effects and lacking any real substance.
Michael Compton of the Bowling Green Daily News described the film as “an overbearing mix of candy-coated visuals and an incoherent plot.” It’s the type of film, Compton wrote, “that makes you question the sanity of the people involved.” Despite a capable cast, Compton blamed the film’s screenplay for trying too hard “to play to the five-and-under crowd.” And apparently, that didn’t work because Compton’s son was disinterested in seeing the film, saying, “Speed Racer stinks.”
“You have to be twelve to like it,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in his review for The Guardian. Bradshaw did credit the film for being “occasionally intriguing in an exotic and bizarre way,” but that wasn’t enough to overcome the “deafeningly loud and stroboscopically flashy” aspects. The film’s unique visuals didn’t work for Bradshaw, who compared them to “an old-fashioned television with the contrast dial turned up too high.”
Much like Bradshaw, CNN’s Tom Charity felt the film would only appeal to a younger audience. “Twelve-year-old boys should be wowed,” Charity wrote, “but for the rest of us, it will depend on your appetite for eye candy.” Charity was impressed by the film’s “visual panache,” crediting the Wachowskis for translating the “splashy, wide-eyed innocence of the anime universe” to the big screen. The visuals, however, weren’t enough in Charity’s eyes to make up for the film’s lack of laughs and suspense and characters that are “as synthetic as everything else in this virtual entertainment.”
Robert Davis of Paste Magazine joined in, saying the film was targeting a younger audience but felt the long run-time would be a hindrance, writing that its “slow middle may lose the seven-year-olds that it clearly covets.” A short version of the film “might have been a retro-futuristic hoot, but at 129 [minutes] it requires five times too much hooting,” Davis wrote. “It’s a sugar cereal served for six meals straight. Enough, Speed Racer, enough.”
In her review for Slate, Dana Stevens declared the film to be a “high-tech failure.” Stevens wasn’t a fan of the film’s nonlinear storytelling and editing choices. The transitional wipes were a particularly sore point for Stevens, and in her defense, the film does go back to them often. “The overuse of this trick evokes the following responses,” Stevens wrote. “First time: Cool! Second time: So? The next seventy-eight times: Why, God, why?” The Wachowskis may have set out to make a distinctive big-screen summer classic, but for Stevens, it was nothing more than the “summer’s loudest, brightest, and most expensive opportunity for a nap.”
Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers also wasn’t sure the preteen target audience would make it through the “punishing 135 minutes as the Wachowski brothers projectile-vomit their cotton-candy dreams all over the big screen.” Travers credited the film for its style and vision, calling it the “trippiest stoner fest since Stanley Kubrick took his space odyssey,” but ultimately felt “nothing sticks to the memory.” The film may be a digital marvel, but it’s one that “feels untouched by human hands.”
Despite the film’s overwhelmingly negative response when it was first released, some critics at the time did praise it. Julie Washington of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that the Wachowskis scored a winner with “a speed-demon of a movie that whisks us to a candy-colored world where everything is go, go, go.” And writing for Newsweek, David Ansen called the film “sweet and flashy and often fun.” Former Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy wrote that Speed Racer was “filled with energy and visual pizzazz and at least strives for something more than dumb entertainment.”
Those latter critics could not have been more correct. Speed Racer is a dazzling display of visual ingenuity. Is it eye candy? Yes, but eye candy isn’t inherently negative, especially when you’re working with a visual medium. The Wachowskis were shooting on high-definition video for the first time and they took the opportunity to test the format’s full capabilities. The result is a pop-art fantasy set in a retro-future world.
To match the chaotic energy radiating from the film’s bold, vivid aesthetic, the Wachowskis incorporated a herky-jerky approach to editing. While there is a fairly straightforward narrative, Speed Racer does whip viewers back and forth on the timeline, alternating the past and the present and occasionally having the two blend into one. This helps to add another layer to the film’s frenetic unpredictability.
Because the film relies so heavily on the gaudy design of the world it creates, some of the finer plot points can get lost. As Speed Racer dazzles spectators with his flashy driving, the larger racing community begins to take notice. E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allman), owner and CEO of Royalton Industries, presents Speed with an offer to race for his giant, multibillion-dollar racing team. Speed is grateful for the opportunity, but turns it down because he races for his family and doesn’t want to be soiled by corporate sponsorship.
The decision doesn’t sit well with Royalton and he vows to run the Racer family out of professional motorsports. This introduces Speed Racer to the seedy underbelly of a corrupt sports world controlled by the greed of consumerism. Granted the film isn’t making any huge declarations, but this small tidbit does suggest the film is more than just a big, dumb popcorn blockbuster.
Unfortunately, back in 2008, Speed Racer suffered a blowout at the box office, bringing in just over $90 million worldwide. The negative review pile-up seemed to be justified. More than a decade later, however, Speed Racer has become a cult classic, and even critical opinion has begun to shift. The film’s visual style that was dismissed as too digital and too in-your-face is now viewed by many as ahead of the curve and a one-of-a-kind experience.
“The directors were overdosing on digital effects, no doubt, but the garish ultrachromatics feel ahead of their time,” Darren Franich wrote in a 2018 piece for Entertainment Weekly, “halfway to Scott Pilgrim, door-knocking against the Froot Loops-y excess of Guardians of the Galaxy.” Franich suggests that it’s unfair to attack Speed Racer for its heavy use of green screen while praising modern films like Avengers: Infinity War, which relies on green screen effects just as much. Yes, the film looks like “a cheap Coke bottle covered in leftover spray paint,” but that’s the whole point.
In a 2020 edition of his The UnPopular Opinion video column for JoBlo, Alex Maidy compares the film to Star Wars as “one of those special film experiences that can alter the way you see cinema moving forward.” Maidy contends that while Speed Racer isn’t without its flaws and isn’t a game-changer, it is a “near-perfect moviegoing experience.” Maidy’s point is that Speed Racer is exactly what you want when you go to the theater to see an action-adventure movie. “The fundamental difference between Speed Racer and most other movies is that it superbly illustrates the ultimate child-like experience.”
For a flashback review for Full Circle Cinema in 2019, Daniel Hrncir revisited the film for the first time since 2008. Having first seen the film while in the fifth grade, Hrncir was afraid of how he would view it now but was pleased to be able to put those worries to bed. “The Wachowskis have directed something truly timeless, a movie that reminds us of one simple fact: childhood is never lost with age.” Hrncir also reminds us that “CGI does not always have to be the bad guy” and praised the Wachowskis for their ability to use it to their benefit in creating a “futuristic world” that “is too bedazzled in chrome for puppets and reality checks.”
In celebrating Speed Racer‘s tenth anniversary for the Observer, Film Crit Hulk declared the film to be “one of the most criminally overlooked films in recent memory and also one of the most oddly inspiring.” Film Crit Hulk argues that fans expected the “leather-clad adult fare” the Wachowskis had become known for and had no idea what to make of the “fluffy, neon-soaked bit of confection” that is Speed Racer. As a result, it was a major flop, and “many came to dismiss the film without ever seeing it.”
Watching Speed Racer now, I can understand why it may not be liked by everyone, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would dismiss the experience. Few films are capable of reaching the level of spectacle that Speed Racer achieves in its opening scene. And what follows is two hours of equally aggressive, glitzy, drift-driving action. We should cherish that. Fortunately, the tide is changing and the cult is growing. Eventually, the rest of the world will catch up with Speed Racer.