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Warner Home Video presents
Speed Racer (Blu-Ray) (2008)

“It’s terrible what passes for a ninja these days.”
- Pops (John Goodman)

Review By: Matt Serafini   
Published: October 06, 2008

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon
Other Stars: Benno Furmann, Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree
Director: The Wachowski Brothers

MPAA Rating: PG for Action, some violence, language and brief smoking
Run Time: 02h:15m:00s
Release Date: September 16, 2008
UPC: 085391176459
Genre: adventure

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A BA+C- C-

DVD Review

Speed Racer suffered such a critical drumming upon its May 2008 release that I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I got my hands on this Blu-Ray. I’m not the biggest fan of the Brothers Wachowski (thanks to their last two Matrix duds), but every trailer and promo I saw for Speed Racer looked like it was going to be a lot of fun. And for the most part, it is.

Arguably the most disappointing thing about it is that it never comes to life in the way you’re hoping. Right from the opening frame there’s such a strong sense of style (from its visuals to the way characters speak and act) that it feels like you’re about to be ensconced in the most successful live-action cartoon of all time. And in a way, you are. I can’t think of a film with a more aggressive color palette. If you can forgive the spellbinding cliche, I'd call this a feast for the eyes. It immediately attacks you with its strange and futuristic cars that can defy the laws of physics with the greatest of ease. It features sprawling cityscapes so alive with color and texture that it’s damn near overwhelming to simply sit and watch. And keeping with the style of the classic anime, characters react in the most stilted of ways, thus fully preserving the style of the cartoon.

Atop all that, there's a damn good cast on display, too. Everyone in Speed Racer breathes life into their animated counterpart effortlessly. Emile Hirsch makes for a solid (if occasionally somber) Speed and Matthew Fox is appropriately soft-spoken as that mysterious Racer X. The rest of the Racer clan is spot-on, too, even if the script doesn't given everyone equal opportunity to contribute (Sarandon, in particular, in wasted).

In fact, nearly every problem with Speed Racer can be attributed to the script (written by the Wachowski Brothers). It’s occasionally over-written and needlessly complicated, mainly whenever the story focuses on main villain Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). For example, a good chunk of the story concerns corporate corruption and a series of ‘fixed’ races. The Wachowski’s intentions are amiable, pitting a ‘cold and calculating’ corporate conglomerate against a close-knit family owned business in a classic underdog story. It’s serviceable but out of place in an otherwise over-the-top, real-life cartoon. After all, how many kids could possibly care about a bad guy whose ultimate goal is to increase the price of stock?

And we can go further into the script for more problems: There's the jarring lack of subtlety in the film’s mysteries. For example, so many clues are given out as to Racer X’s true identity that it might as well have been revealed at the outset. It’s also unsurprising as to which minor characters will turn out to be villains in disguise as they’re often involved in conversations such as: This is wrong, what you’re trying to do.” This wouldn’t be so bad if the story didn’t hinge on these twists in the third act. Making things so painfully obvious robs the story of any real surprise. Other things are far from subtle, too. One character tells a story only to have another tell the same exact one later on. Repetition is a big piece of this pie, marring an already overlong film.

Then there’s the action. I’m torn between praising and damning it. Again, it’s hard to think of a recent film as aesthetically pleasing as this and that’s never truer than during the film’s action sequences. Cars are flipping and flying all over the racetrack at a breakneck pace, swerving around flaming wrecks and plummeting into ravines only to climb right back out. There are even a few kung-fu battles to break up all of this driving tedium. All of this stuff is expertly handled and undeniably exciting. Given their background it’s no surprise that the Wachowski’s have mastered elaborate action sequences. My only qualm is that by the time we reach the climactic race, we’ve already seen all of Speed Racer’s best tricks and it’s all just a little monotonous by the end.

Bringing Speed Racer to the big screen couldn’t have been an easy task and, while watching it, I had to wonder how critics could’ve universally panned it. It’s not for everyone, admittedly, but it’s packed with so much innovation that I have to wonder if the film’s reliance on CGI is what ticked off many of the ‘"purists." This is the best example of a cartoon brought to life I’ve ever seen--a perfect example of necessary CGI. It wouldn't have been possible without it. Personally I admired the technique of the Wachowski’s here. It's so intricate and assured that while the content isn't perfect, the style more than won me over. It's not entirely without substance, but it's the style that makes this a trip worth taking.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As far as PQ goes, you're not going to see anything more deserving of a Blu-Ray viewing. This could very well be the most colorful film I've ever seen and it's almost visual overload to try and take it all in. Sharp edges help to make characters and vehicles stand apart from the environments and illustrate the complexity of the textures. Just when you think transfers cannot look any better, along comes something like Speed Racer to raise the bar yet again.

Image Transfer Grade: A+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, French, Portuguese, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: No TrueHD here. No lossless audio. In the beginning, this was one of my reasons for preferring HD DVD over Blu-Ray. To this day there are several Warner Bros. discs I will not own (Superman Returns and Lethal Weapon, to name a few) because of the exclusion of a TrueHD track.

But the format war is ove rand Blu-Ray is the victor. What, then, is Warner's reason for bestowing a potential demo disc with a lossy 5.1 surround track? Worst of all is that it's a weak track as far as DD 5.1 tracks go. It's simply flat. Dialogue is, for the most part, clear and audible; it's the sound effects and music cues that feel muted. I wanted to be IN this movie, not constantly watching it from the sidelines. That's the difference between TrueHD and 5.1, believe me. But it's also accented here with a tremendously average sound mix.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 31 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
3 Documentaries
Packaging: standard Blu-ray packaging
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Speed Racer comes to Blu-Ray in a two-disc set (sorry, I refuse to count that digital copy), although all of the extra material can be found on Disc 1.

First up is a 27-minute documentary called Car Fu Cinema that provides us with a somewhat typical behind-the-scenes look. It's your standard look at the FX work, the casting process, set design, etc. It's a nifty little fluff piece that nicely showcases the ridiculous amount of effort required to create something as visually complex as Speed Racer. Since the film just came out, this plays out like the typical extended promotional piece, but that's not a bad thing.

Next up is a tour of the sets hosted by Spritle. Again, it's cool to see behind the scenes of this very expensive-looking production, but it's nothing you'd ever want to sit though more than once.

Lastly we've got a nifty look at the wild and crazy cars that populate the film. Nothing too insightful (clocking in just north of 15 minutes), but a fun little piece.

Disc 2 is a DVD game called Crucible Challenge. It'd be hard to imagine even children staying interested in this one, with its awkward control scheme and unimpressive animation. Definitely not worth a look if you've got a real video game system in the house.

There's also a digital copy disc in case you want to watch the film (in SD) on your laptop.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

A future cult classic? That's impossible to say. But Speed Racer is a film worthy of discovery on Blu-Ray. Warner’s release is certainly a mixed bag, featuring amazing video and lackluster audio. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying this release, however—the picture quality is truly a sight and the movie is pretty damn cool, too.


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