I never watched the anime series Speed Racer, so the cinematic adaptation had zero nostalgic appeal to me. Being mostly unfamiliar with the original series, I cannot say how the theatrical adaptation compares. The story is nothing impressive, but it manages to balance family fun with a bit of intrigue. The plot is paper-thin and predictable, there is no character development to speak of, and the film is probably 20 minutes too long. Based on these criticisms, if the movie tried to succeed solely on conventional means, it would have be even more forgettable than critics would lead you to believe.
When the film works (and it does work), the actors and narrative fade into the background and you are enveloped in a surreal play of shapes, colors and sounds. The Wachowski brothers revolutionized action cinema with the Matrix films, and they actually go a step further here. From what little knowledge I have of the anime series, this appears to be a live-action cartoon homage. At any particular moment, there is so much going on within the frame that it’s overwhelming to try and take it all in.
Rather than a cheap tactic of throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the mix, this is a masterful use of blue/green screen, CGI and live action. Reality as we know it is thrown aside, and the laws of physics are abandoned to deliver fantastic displays of “acrobatic combat racing” and fight scenes inspired by the best wire-fu. Even in the lesser moments, there is morphing between thematic objects and a play of motion between the fore and background simultaneously containing and being constrained by a kaleidoscope of colors that is downright mesmerizing. This is a film that communicates through the language of visual motion and representation that you do not so much watch as absorb or possibly are absorbed by. I regret that I passed up the chance to witness this spectacle theatrically but am delighted to have this in high definition.
Any complaints about the story should drop away when viewing the high-def visuals. Speed Racer on Blu-ray is framed at 2.40:1 with a 1080p VC-1 encode, with a transfer that’s jaw-droppingly stunning and has a reference-quality HD image that’s one of the best I have ever seen. The visuals reach out and slap your eyeballs to demand their attention with two-plus hours of sensory overload at its best. Having been shot with HD cameras, no intermediate transfer from film to digital media was necessary and the image is clean and shiny with the best of brilliant surreal presentations.
To be clear, this is not a video you will use to show how HD can present the natural world or a lifelike film; it is a video that you will use to show how awesome HD can be no matter the context. In fact, there is nothing “natural” looking in this movie. It is hyper-realistic mix of cartoon inspired computer graphics and live action that reminds me of a Tim Burton movie or an episode of Pushing Daisies possibly injected with psychedelic drugs.
To say that color saturation is well done in this transfer would be a massive understatement. Primary pastel and neon hues are so deep and vibrant as to almost be obnoxious but without any worrisome bleeding. The color palette is so varied that it is exhausting to try to catalog while good ole’ plain white is a commodity utilized mostly for Speed’s car and racing outfit. Rock solid black levels and perfectly resolved shadow areas showcase impeccable contrast.
Consistently crisp, clear detail abounds throughout and is astonishing in close ups and long distance shots. With the visual trickery utilized, the depth of focus moves between the fore, middle and background seamlessly and brings all three together at once for an optical confluence of excess. If there are any issues with this 1080p transfer, they are so minor as to be overshadowed by the visual splendor presented that you would have to pointlessly nitpick the image to find them. This is truly a stunning Blu-ray video that should take its place as the disc of choice to demo your HD television for the immediate future.
As awesome as the visuals are the audio does not match up as we are given a rather disappointing English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This is probably due to the use of a single layer BD25 disc rather than a dual layer BD50 that with the included extras limited the space available for high-def lossless audio. This audio mix is the only way I have ever heard Speed Racer but considering the effort and level of quality that went into the video presentation, I believe there is much potential to the soundtrack not actualized on this Blu-ray.
In its favor, the Dolby Digital mix is busy and utilizes all the speakers including the rears and sub with dialog being consistently clear. However, having become accustomed to what the best of high def audio can provide, this mix sounds flat and lacks warmth, extended range and separation that would have created a more enveloping soundscape. Considering how superb the visuals are, the audio should have been mastered to compliment them. Forgoing lossless audio is a missed opportunity from Warner. Additional Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are included in French, Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles in English (SDH) and the above languages.
Even though Warner Home Video was too “cheap” to utilize a BD50 disc for the main feature, two extra discs are offered in the set. One has a game, and another a digital copy of the movie. The extras are not overwhelming with two featurettes ported over from the DVD release and one Blu-ray exclusive. No commentary is included which is a shame as it would have been nice to here the Wachowski’s expound on some of the artistic choices made for Speed Racer. All extras are presented in stereo sound and 480 i/p video that goes along with the limitations of using a BD25 disc.
Speed Racer: Car Fu (27:38): The only extra really worth bothering with is an exclusive to the Blu-ray release that features producers, special effects artists, production designers, etc talking about the visual construction of the film. While this is not a full-fledged documentary, this featurette is very interesting if you are intrigued by the technical details of the film. We get a nice amount of background into how the distinctive visual styling of the movie came together.
Spritle in the Big Leagues (14:34): This featurette showcases Paulie Litt who played Spritle going behind the scenes of the movie. He talks to a wide range of people involved including set designers, FX artists and stunt trainers. While vaguely interesting, it is mostly a fluff piece with not enough depth to justify the initial viewing much less repeat attempts (though as I mentioned before with the story, kids may find it more to their liking than adults).
Speed Racer: Supercharged! (15:43): A breakdown of the technical specs on the different racing cars and tracks in the movie. This utilizes some flashy video (but then the whole movie did too) to showcase what differentiates one car or track from another. It seems overly ponderous and is probably not of much interest except to geeks obsessed with trivial details.
Speed Racer Crucible Challenge is a game included on one of the extra discs. You use your remote to navigate a car through various obstacles. I found this painfully boring and lost interest within minutes. I am not sure why the studio bothered including this when they could have gone to the effort to give us HD audio or better special features. I guess it was an inexpensive feature to produce, but I would rather they had not even bothered.
A Digital Copy of the movie is included on yet another disc. From what I understand, the downloadable standard definition copy is only compatible with Windows Media Player. To echo my comments about the less than admirable game included, I would rather the studio have put the effort into giving Blu-ray fans a full HD presentation and comparable extras rather than this.
If you are looking for straight up realism then Speed Racer’s leap from the small to big screen is not for you. However, if you want some of the most stunning eye candy seen to date, give Speed Racer a shot. While the narrative and plot leave something to be desired, the movie is really not meant to be digested that way and the visual presentation is currently second to none. This is a sensory overload of optical grandeur that will give any HD display a thorough workout.
Sadly, due to critical panning and relative moviegoer disregard, Warner does not give the film the full HD treatment it deserves. While the aforementioned visuals are breathtaking, the audio could have been so much more. Plus we are given a number of less than impressive extras (with the exception of a decent Blu-ray exclusive featurette) that lead me to believe we will see a much deserved double dip of Speed Racer on Blu-ray in the future.
- Score: 6.7
- Although the main-feature video quality is second to none, the bonus features fall flat on their face, and the plot is extremely pedestrian.
— Robert Searle