Speed Racer brings a cartoon to vivid life in a surprisingly divisive way

One of the first movies I purchased on Blu-Ray was Speed Racer. Not because I was a fan – I hadn’t seen it before I bought it – but because it was on sale for less than $10. I was building a (now excessive) collection of HD titles, and I thought, “Why not?” It would be a good “demo disk” for my home theatre setup, and the kids might like it.

I hadn’t expected to fall head-over-heels in love with the film.

When it was first released, a lot of fans and critics HATED it. Just take a look at some old comment boards and online reviews… they despised the film, and that hate spread among people who never even saw the picture. I call it the “Ishtar Effect”: When the pop culture zeitgeist decides something sucks, well… it’s decided. Any opinion to the contrary is drowned out by the majority who just “know” it’s bad. What surprised me is how many people acted like they had a vested interest in the film’s failure, and they were gleeful at the disappoint box office returns.

Here’s some of what I wrote at the time of the film’s release:

You look at the message boards, all afire as users post insulting slams against those who loved or hated the film, often becoming incredibly insulting and personal attacks, and you just think…. wow. We are the most blessed nation on the planet.

I mean, really. People (including myself, to be fair) are able to use their computers, connected to an incredibly rich network of information and opinion that did not even EXIST 20 years ago, to debate the merits of a movie based on a CARTOON. I’m absolutely sure that none of the people who debated Speed Racer had to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Heck, I’m sure many of them could stand to skip a couple of meals (sorry, cheap shot).

My point is this: we don’t know how good we got it, people. And so thank God we can speak our opinion freely, when many many nations don’t allow our populace to do likewise. The fact that we can debate over a live-action-anime film based on a bad 1970s TV show is something we need to enjoy and cherish and be grateful for.

Speed Racer may be fantastic. It may be horrid. But if it could raise such a stink with people then there must be something of note there.

There WAS something there. Something amazing. The Wachowski siblings, who had previously brought us one good Matrix movies and two bad ones, brought a thin-as-paper cartoon to vivid life and gave it a beating living joyful heart. It’s as artificial a film as was ever constructed, but it feels real and completely human.

The cast are perfect, from John Goodman to Emile Hirsh to Mathew Fox and Christina Ricci. The racing segments are incredible spectacles, so superior to other race segments as to make them boring and lifeless (I”m looking at you, Episode One pod race). But most important is… it’s moving. This film, a cartoon writ large, touched me.

Again, I hadn’t expected THAT to happen.

Many notable critics, far more respectable than I am, share my view that Speed Racer is a magnificent film (Richard Corliss of Time Magazine listed it as his 9th best film of the year). But the Ishtar Effect was too strong, and most people think of it as a bad movie that bombed at the box office and is best left forgotten. Hence, my inclusion in this Neglected Cinema series.

Don’t listen to the haters. Find a copy of Speed Racer, and smile as you view an amazing Technicolor wonder that will enter your mind… and your heart.

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Joseph Dickerson

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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