Flunking the Critics & their Speed Racer Reviews

by Stephen Tringali

It’s no secret that film critics at large panned Speed Racer. Rotten Tomatoes shows that the film received a 34 percent rotten rating, concluding that “the Wachowski Brothers have overloaded Speed Racer with headache-inducing special effects, and neglected to develop a coherent storyline.”

The logic behind a site such as Rotten Tomatoes is that, though some people may hold a favorite film critic, no film critic’s analysis can be correct at all times. This is to say that “correct” translates into an accurate predication of public taste. As many already know, Rotten Tomatoes synthesizes these critical opinions and produces a single opinion. That one meta-opinion usually determines whether we make the trip to the movie theater.

Of course, with Speed Racer, I neglected to consider the Rotten Tomatoes opinion and went to see the film for myself. When I later told my friends that I had seen the film, they only groaned: “Oh, no. Steve, I can’t believe you saw that. I heard it was awful. Now, last night I watched blah blah blah and that, THAT was an excellent film.”

Under less peculiar circumstances, I would have agreed and replied that, yes, Speed Racer was dreck. I miss my $10 already. But this was not the case because the very sources from which my friends heard about Speed Racer (the critics) were not suited to analyze this film. Why? Because the very nature of the job — watching, considering and reviewing films — involves some degree, or even the very semblance, of critical analysis.

The original Speed Racer cartoon never supposed that it would become the subject of critical analysis. It was a simple anime that, along with Gigantor, introduced American audiences to the wild and off-kilter nature of Japanese animation. To suppose that the film adaptation would amount to anything greater — in an intellectually stimulating manner, anyway — is to anticipate disappointment.

And yet, many major critics set themselves up for disappointment by mistakenly analyzing Speed Racer as though it were not derived from a hyper-kinetic, mind-numbing anime series. Jim Emerson, writing for The Chicago Sun-Times, spouts: “Speed Racer is a manufactured widget, a packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products.”

What Emerson doesn’t seem to understand is that, despite our own moral notions, Capitalist Evil proves a traditional player in the realm of anime marketing. Nearly all popular anime shows (see both the Gundam and Dragon Ball franchises for examples) proliferate action figure spawns in both Japan and North America. But, then again, Emerson doesn’t seem to hold the slightest appreciation for anime: “To us, [the original Speed Racer cartoon] was just filler between after-school reruns of Gilligan's Island and The Munsters. We watched it because it was on, and it was in color.”

Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers makes an even more egregious mistake in his analysis. He notes the film’s rather straightforward storyline and simplistic character development as faults, forgetting that the cartoon series never provided audiences with anything more: “Even the target audience of 10-year-olds might get jimmy legs sitting for a punishing 135 minutes as the Wachowski brothers projectile-vomit their cotton-candy dreams all over the big screen.”

Travers’ description is accurate — in the visual sense, anyway. What the Wachowski Brothers, the producer/director/writers of Speed Racer, have done is over-stimulating, anxious, and at times, difficult to digest. But that doesn’t necessary mean that the final product suffers. It is what it is: the most logical live-action adaptation of the Speed Racer cartoon series that could be imagined.

If the original television series, or any other anime product for that matter, fails to stimulate your interest, don’t expect that the live action variation will fire any neurons. As Travers writes, “…if you catch the movie in IMAX, take out damage insurance on your optic nerve.” And if that sounds like your kind of party — because I know it sounds like mine — then forget Rotten Tomatoes and forget critical opinion.

(The promotional photo of Speed Racer is from Warner Brothers Pictures. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

Editor's Note: This post is the last piece by Stephen Tringali for iVoryTowerz. For the second time, we send him off with a hearty good-bye and we wish him luck in his new endeavors. Steve is one of the original writers of the blog group and his views and attitude have contributed to the blog's character.

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Rick Rockwell said...

There’s a computer programming expression that seems to fit here: garbage in, garbage out.

That critic from the Sun-Times actually had a point: it takes one horrendously bad piece of television to make The Munsters look good. But Speed Racer was what the TV programmers foisted on us, and as I recall in the pre-cable universe, it was the only possible program that might hold any attention in those after-school timeslots. If you were watching television, you gritted your teeth, until the next show which didn’t seem so awful after Speed.

Let’s face it, even as an example of Japanese anime, Speed Racer is pretty lame. Even as kitsch it is so far down the scale it barely registers.

And at one time I might have actually ranked it as one of the worst TV shows ever, until I recently saw (only because my four-year-old asked if she could sample it) the new animated Speed Racer series. This is what the film has done besides spawn a variety of toy marketing tie-ins (and such examples of evil capitalist marketing are not unique to anime, by the way), it has spun off a new animated television series that is worse (if that is possible!) than the original. Even my four-year-old thought the new series was poor. No more requests to watch after that first stunningly stupid outing.

So we go back to the original thought: garbage in, garbage out.

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