Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Speed Racer - The Next Generation - The Beginning - Review

Speed Racer - The Next Generation - The Beginning

If you haven't yet, please read this first - The Next DVD Review

I have to admit, right off the bat, I was pretty skeptical of this movie. My first thoughts were that this movie was going to be another “X-TREME!” movie and was only made to capitalize off the release of the Wachowski brothers’ 2008 “Speed Racer” movie. By “X-TREME!”, I am referring to those shows that have to have "X-TREME!" thrown in the title and lots of pointless computer graphics with little to no storyline. The box cover to the DVD screamed, “Bulky Animation….X-TREME!”. So with some trepidation and low expectations, I watched the new Speed Racer TV show/movie.

I first have to tell you a little of where I am coming from when I watch this movie. While I have seen a majority of the older “Speed Racer” cartoons, I am not a big fan. I like them enough and can appreciate them for being one of the earliest Japanese anime influences in the US. Also, as of this writing, I have not yet seen the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer” movie. As such, with most of my movie reviews I write from a geek’s perspective and so can better draw parallels between a remake and a classic show/movie. However, with this review, I will be writing from more of an amateur fan perspective with just a cursory knowledge of the original series. I don’t think this will detract from the review; in fact, I think this point of view makes me a good “middle of the road” viewer.

Synopsis

The first thing to know, right off the bat, is that this series is entirely Speed Racer canon. So it builds onto the original story with this series. A young orphan, Speed (voiced by Kurt Csolak) is starting his first year at an elite racing academy. His goal is to become the best driver since Speed Racer! Yes, just like his namesake. The only problem he has is that pretty much everyone else at the racing academy has the same goal. To make matters worse, the best driver at the school is none other than Speed Racer’s son, X (voiced by Robbie Sublett).

Speed seems out of place. He is coming in as a new student with no friends, with no team, and even no car. That means some of the bad kids of the school are quick to sniff out this fresh meat and make him uneasy right off the bat.

Their rude and cruel behavior isn’t going to stop Speed and get him down. In fact, he’s actually pretty cordial to them, which is refreshing to have in a character for once. Speed even sticks up for himself later in the movie which is a good change of pace from the standard “just take it and walk away” message we usually get. Yet, X and his friends can’t lay down their pride or contempt for Speed. Anyway, if they did, who would be the antagonist peer group? Speed is quick (ha ha get it?) to make his own friends. His roommate, Conor (voiced by Carter Jackson), is a Speed Racer fanatic.

Yes, he is a Speed Racer geek. This movie is playing right into my soft spots! Conor is not a racer but a genius mechanic who can build just about anything, including a robot monkey, Chim Chim. Speed also befriends Lucy (voiced by Sahra Mellesse).

She’s a workaholic, determined, type one personality woman. She also decides to head Speed’s pit crew and work with him to help him become the best driver since Speed Racer.

Not only does Speed have to deal with tough classes, bullies, finding a car, winning races, and trying to be the best racer since Speed Racer; but he must also fight off Zile Zazic (voiced by David Skigen).

Zile Zazic is a very wealthy businessman with controlling interests in the oil industry. He is also a big financier of the racing school. Zazic is leery of Speed and his natural born talent to race. So he decides to spy on Speed and the happenings in the racing school.

To encourage Speed in his career at the racing school is Headmaster Spritle.

If that name sounds familiar to then you must be a viewer of the classic “Speed Racer”. In the original, this was Spritle:

To make this an even better geek out moment, the person who does the voice for the Headmaster is none other than Peter Fernandez. That’s right. The guy who did the original voice of Speed Racer and Racer X in the original series is in the new series.

As a geek, I am always happy to see people from an original series come back into a new series.

It is later revealed, although it really wasn’t a secret, that Speed is…dunt dunt dunnnnn…Speed Racer’s son! The fun thing is, the movie doesn’t even really try to hide the fact. Conor even makes a joke about it, before it’s revealed, that Speed has a lot in common with Speed Racer. This, of course, means that X and Speed are brothers!

Speed has a lot to live up to and also to fight against. He gets some help from a special key that Speed Racer left him before he put Speed up for adoption. The key leads Speed, Conor, and Lucy to a junkyard full of old parts…parts…for the Mach 5!

Later, Conor rebuilds the Mach 5 with the help of a new engine Speed Racer designed that would work without gas. Therefore, Speed now gets to race in his very own Mach 6!

The Visuals

To start things off I want to talk about the opening credits. As I stated above, I thought this movie was going to be an epileptic inducing movie and I figured the first time I’d see this is in the opening credits. I was shocked that I did not flop to the floor with seizures. The opening credit sequence had a straightforward approach that had a little class to it. Also, the original song is back but updated with a punk version. It was kind of a relief not to hear the now cheesy 1960’s theme music. Also, this punk version doesn’t make me want to shove an ice pick in my eardrums like a lot of punk cover songs do.

The other big thing that I was worried about was the use or over use of computer generated images. I really didn’t want to see a “Reboot” version of “Speed Racer”. Once again, my fears were abated. I didn’t see disproportionate polygons for characters and very unrealistic racing sequences.

That is not to say there weren’t some flaws. The character models at the beginning of the movie are stiff and remind me a bit of the marionettes and how they moved from “Team America – World Police”. Also, characters seemed to be superimposed on the background, almost as if they were standing in front of green screens or thrown into a “Flintstones” set.

However, this look changes later in the movie somehow. The characters look different and look more like they have a classic animation style. They are done sharper and more fluid in their movements. I like the look to all the main characters save one. That’s Speed himself. For some reason his eyes are freaky looking and misshapen. I don’t know why.

X doesn’t have these grey-alien-like eyes, nor do any of the other characters in the movie. It’s really a minimal gripe overall, but I don’t understand why you’d want to make your main character so different in appearance.

The car models look really great.

They have a realistic look to them and look pretty cool. The best ones are the shark cars.

What can I say? I’m a guy and a kid at heart! They’re metal, have teeth, and have weaponry!

The biggest problem I have with this movie is its use of the virtual track. Everything today must be virtual and “futuristic”. The virtual track is way too overused and takes a lot of the drama away for me. The movie makes a point of clearly stating that even though everything’s virtual, you can still be injured. However, I was always told that what happens in video games is fake and I should never do anything I see in those games in real life. That’s how I feel about the racing on the virtual track. Sure, the terrain and obstacles can be different, but you lose all sense of realism with it. The very first time the virtual track is employed, I felt like I was watching “Tron” and this time…that wasn’t a good thing.

The worst visual mistake I saw was with the very first race. Speed is driving a beater that starts smoking right before he gets to the finish line and it stops, engulfed in smoke. The smoke looks atrocious. The picture below shows it looking just kind of bad. However, in the movie it looks a whole lot worse.

There are some really great camera shots that show a nod to the original series. They are not overused so as to turn you off, but just enough are show to make fans of the old show draw connections between the new and the old series. There is also some really great memorabilia that Conor has in regards to the old show and the old Speed Racer. Like I said, I have an affinity for him and his geekyness.

Classic Peddle Shot

Speed Jumping Into The Mach 5 Just Like Speed Racer

The Characters

Other than Speed’s weird eyes, I really ended up liking his character. He would stand up for himself when pushed too far and he didn’t constantly whine when the going got tough or he didn’t get his way. He’s also given some really great lines such as, “Just don’t spy on me with a robot monkey again…now that’s something I never though I’d say.” Also, when he’s racing on the ice tundra he gets the classic line of, “Time to put you on ice! Was that too corny?” I love characters that poke fun at their own cheesy lines. Of course, I love cheesy lines so it’s a win-win for me.

Conor is not as annoying as he seemed he was going to be. He is a really funny person and he definitely gets some of the better comedic lines. It’s also good to see him be able to carry himself with his talent and not leech off Speed’s like so many sidekick characters tend to do. He can literally build anything and he does a good job at it. It’s refreshing to see a secondary character that is funny and not a screw up.

Lucy is a great character. She is a black woman in a predominately white, male dominated world. She can work on the cars and be a leader. Again, it’s rare to see a secondary character who can take over the leadership role instead of letting Speed lead the group. Lucy makes a great role model for little girls who might want to work in a field that isn’t considered “female work”.

X, Speed Racer’s other son, is a moronic bully. His thinking is that Speed Racer is his father and so his pride tells him that he will already be the greatest racer since his father. Not until later, when he finds out Speed is his brother, does his character change from being a bully to being a great rival for Speed. X enters a race whose prize is unlimited car parts. Since X has sponsors and doesn’t need the parts we see two really great things come out of him. First of all, he says that he’ll race because he likes to win. He says it with enough bad guy-like gull that you know he’d do almost anything to win. Also, he delivers the best written line in the movie. He tells his cronies that when he wins he’ll give the parts to Speed so he can build the Mach 6. Why? “I’d give him my parts because then each time he goes behind the wheel he’d remember he’s there before of me.” Now THAT is a great rival quote!

Headmaster Spritle seems kind of like a pushover character as of right now. He knows when to stop trouble before it gets too out of control. However, he seems to have quite a few secrets he’s keeping. Once again, it’s great to see Peter Fernandez doing the voice of one of the original characters.

Zile Zazic is one character that I didn’t really get a good grip on. I know he’s evil because he wants to sabotage Speed and he use to be enemies with Speed Racer. However, he’s not really that menacing and the movie doesn’t really give a reason why he’s got it out for Speed so much. He also has some of the most awful lines in the film. From “Oh, he won’t see my strangeness coming.” to, “That’s how we put the baby to bed.”, I don’t know how these lines even work! They were good for a laugh but they made my head hurt afterwards.

Chim Chim…ah, Chim Chim. I wanted so badly to talk about how much I hated the robot monkey. Why does he have to be a robot? He doesn’t even wear a jumpsuit and his beeping is annoying. Why can’t he have a mechanical chirp to him at least?

Yet, he grew on me through the movie! The monkey has some really funny scenes, especially with a bird, and he made me laugh quite a few times. I do have to admit to having an affinity for monkeys, but I usually can’t stand things being turned into robots for no reason. Robo-Chim Chim worked for me.

Other Items Of Interest

The use of the word “noob” in this film is annoying. It was just thrown in so as to relate the young viewers to the characters. It drove me nuts each time it was said and I felt saddened that this movie has ruined the word for me from now on.

The Mach 6 looks really great, but why couldn’t we have gone with a better color than grey?

There are two really great math related gags in the film. The first is when Speed is faced with a difficult racing procedure; he instinctively knows the physics in order to pull off the trick. We, the audience, get to see him work it out and as a math geek, I really got a kick out of it. It's real math!

The second actually comes from Chim Chim. Speed is talking about how much better X is and he has so much to learn from the school. Chim Chim helps out everyone by clarifying the mathematical configuration for what Speed just said.

There is a really funny Star Wars reference. I won’t ruin it, but Chim Chim and Conor had me laughing really hard.

DVD Extras

The DVD comes in 5.1 Dolby digital audio. The only problem is that there isn’t much in the movie that takes full advantage of the audio specs. The other downfall is that the film only comes in the 4:3 fullscreen and no widescreen. There are also English and Spanish subtitles. The special features include the making of the show, a mini-game, and a gallery of the characters in the movie.

The making of was really good to watch. It’s nice to see the new show creators giving props to the older show. They recognize what people think and like about the show and didn’t try to change it too radically from what’s loved about it. They also talk about paying homage with the new series to the older one. They talk about bringing some of the older elements into the new and that it’s actually a continuation of the old series without fully relying on it. We also get to see Peter Fernandez in here. He talks about the old series a little bit and talks about how he was tapped to do this one.

The game is pretty simple and involves pushing arrow on the remote at the right time. It’s pretty simple and quick and would only be interesting to really young viewers.

The gallery of characters gives some nice background information on all the main characters in the movie. You do learn quite a bit more about the characters’ history and motives that you didn’t know from watching the movie. Of course, if you don’t like to read then this may not be for you.

Overall

I am no fan of any car racing sport. However, for a racing cartoon, this was actually pretty entertaining. The pacing was good and it didn’t drag. I didn’t ask myself once during the whole 66 minutes, “When will this be over?!” The characters were strong and the comedy wasn’t completely cheesy and I laughed quite a bit. I don’t think I’d watch the show on Nickelodeon, but if I had kids I think I could get hooked on it with them. Speed is a good role model for sticking up for yourself but at the same time turning the other cheek when you need to. Conor shows a kid what hard work can accomplish but you don’t need to stop having fun to do a great job. Lucy shows, most of all, girls that they can do anything they want to in life if they really want to. On top of all that, the geek in me loves the continuation of the canon and the recognition of the older series instead of just throwing it under the bus and pretending it never existed.

It was not all good though. The animation was a bit ugly on both characters and environments and the overuse of the virtual track was tedious. Some of the characters weren’t that well fleshed out to get a real sense for them and some of the script lines were just awful.

Since this movie is really the first three episodes of the TV show I think the show has a lot of potential. I’d be interesting to see what else happens at the racing academy and what other lessons Speed, Conor, Lucy, and Chim Chim could teach kids. I would really love to see the love/hate relationship between Speed and X flourish and be teased out more. If you have kids, this could become a classic for them like the original Speed Racer was for you.

Grade - B

4 comments:

patrick said...

I have to give the Wachowski bros credit for putting a lot of hard work into making Speed Racer... but overall the movie looked and felt like a cross between anime, a kaleidoscope, that Flinstones movie, a video game and the Dukes of Hazard

Anonymous said...

I want a hotwheels car of the next generation mach 6 I would buy one and play whth it for hours on end

Anonymous said...

There is a Mach 6 and X's car toy from Wendy's in the phillippines... otherwise, try to grab a DVD of Speed Racer TNG, Comet Run to get a Mach 6 toy, then you might want to paint it to be more Show-accurate...

Anonymous said...

Speed and X become really good friends(Or rather, brothers) later on in Episode 4: Low Price of Fame.
In Episode 6: The Note, Speed finds a note sent by his father claiming he is in danger and to meet him outside the academy. Speed knows that the note was sent by an imposter and teams up with X to find out who the imposter is.

And for the Star Wars thing, Conor acts like Darth Vader.