Monday, May 12, 2008


Although the original SPEED RACER cartoon was a favorite of my peers, I never heard of or saw it as kid, nor would I have probably cared for it: I'm not much into cars for one thing and it frankly left me cold when I finally saw it as an adult. Still my 8-year-old son (who has also never seen the show) was excited about the movie and we went to see it yesterday. Or rather we saw most of it, somewhere near the 2-hour mark, during the umpteenth heart-to-heart scene between Speed and his Pops, our own heart-to-heart went something like this:

SON: "Dad, this is boring, can we go?"
ME: "I thought you'd never ask."

On a general note, both my son and I were left slack-jawed with confusion at why an action movie for kids, with a wholly transparent good-guys v.s. bad-guys plot, would favor long, static and redundant dialog scenes to action seemingly 10-to-one? The action scenes could have been satisfying enough if it wasn't quickly apparent that the filmmakers were intent to make us "pay" for each with subsequent bombardments of incessant talk. The villain in particular machinates and threatens with trenchant and unimaginatively cliched menace over and over again, each exchange dragging on and on long after the point has been made. Alternately, we are confronted with repetitive turgid domestic scenes of Speed and his family and girlfriend espousing utterly hackneyed and hollow homilies about virtue and destiny.. (Interestingly enough, the actors pull this off with a complete simultaneous absence of both sincerity and irony.) Much like the over-bloated Peter Jackson KING KONG (which I liked in spots), SPEED could have been at least a third shorter (no exaggeration) and greatly improved if somehow someone had intervened in the editing room. Indulgent cases like this would seem to enforce the complete lack of trust that studio management has toward filmmakers.

Length aside however, here at this blog I'd like to be permitted a short, public rant against the tendency of live-action filmmakers to adapt the visual sense of animation with either contempt, confusion, or a complete lack of understanding. Similar to the 1990's debacle DICK TRACY, (as one close friend pointed out), the filmmakers of SPEED RACER have decided that cartoon artwork is all aggressively hideous kitsch, comprised of garishly saturated primary colors, shrill lighting and indiscriminately tacky details. The surreal race track scenes aside, the "natural" world of SPEED RACER is limned out with the deliberately pornographic bad taste of artists like David Lachappelle and Jeff Koons: electrified sodium blue skies, blinding white cotton candy clouds and blood-red rosebushes surround homes decorated with screeching decor that looks more like merchandising than anyone's actual rugs or wall paper. It makes literally everything impossible to digest, especially considering the unfathomably sober and sedate writing in the off-track narrative. Although I'm not an expert on the old show, none of these visuals resembles it to me, the show seemed somewhat bleached out and ordinary. For that matter, the production design and art direction don't look anything like any classic cartoon of any genre which would be considered a touchstone for this sort of assignment. None of this seems to matter. When the experts go to work, I guess they just figure they already know what cartoons look like: crap. The rest is up to them to exaggerate and extrapolate as they feel free to.

I wish the movie had been better and I doubt this professional quibble accounts for it's failure. But at some point maybe this recurring pattern will dawn on live-action movie makers and point them in a different direction. Like actually referencing good cartoons for a change.


Weirdo said...

I never cared for Speed Racer either. I never saw the original cartoon and I don't care to. I remember my dad saying the Mach 5 sounded like a very loud lawnmower. What is even worse are the new Speed Racer cartoons on Nicktoons. It's both bland and ugly. Dear God, someone save us from this horrible mediocrity.

Will Finn said...

Weirdo, i didn't know there was a new version of the cartoon. it takes all kinds i guess.

spoiler alert: we even get to see precocious tot "Spridel" give the finger to one villain and "Chim-Chim" to fling monkey poop at another. i guess fart jokes will have to move over for obscene gestures and lumps of fecal matter from now on.

Mike Gillett said...

Yet another movie capitalizing on the "boomer" tv shows of yesteryear. Add this one to that list.

It must be easier than thinking up original stuff.

BillRiling said...

I was one of those boomers who watched the show as a kid. Everyday at three o'clock my friend and I would 'race' home to check out the latest episode statically transmitted through our cheap UHF atennae. But neither of us watched it to see Speed Racer. For us the Mach Five was the star of the show. It was a cool design and of course had more gadgets than James Bond's Astin Martin. We'd then go out to ride our Stingray bikes, popping wheelies as we raced around the neighborhood wishing our bikes could leap over objects or have sawblades that would cut through the neighbor's bushes. The point is we were kids. Channel Seventeen only offered the Japanese cartoons of the era; Prince Planet, Eighth Man, ASTRO BOY, Marine Boy and Kimba the White Lion. If we wanted great cartoons we had to wait until Saturday when ABC ran the Bugs Bunny Show.

Nostalgia may have induced me to see Speed Racer the Movie until I saw the trailers. I have no intention of ever watching that movie.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

I guess they just really ran out of ideas for good movies these days. They've done nearly all the Jay Ward stuff ('Dudley Do-Right', 'Underdog', George of the Jungle...they're actually in the process of making a 'Peabody & Sherman' film now), 'Alvin & the Chipmunks', 'Mr. Magoo', 'Inspector Gadget', & now 'Speed Racer' (which I didn't really care for either)

I really don't get why they make these films. Aren't these shows/characters supposed to be animated for a reason? Will turning Underdog into a CGI beagle really improve the quality or boost the popularity of the original show? They can't be doing it for the money, 'cause some of these films barely break even.

& it's brainwashing the children too!!! I actually spoke to a kid I taught in Cartooning class & he said he dreams of making a live-action Peanuts movie when he grows up. Could you imagine THAT?! Personally, I'm surprised they haven't made Yogi Bear, Top Cat & Tom & Jerry into a L-A film yet, but at this rate they'll probably get to it sooner or later.

Still, there's always an audience for it...

Bruce said...

I hope the advice I'm going to give you doesn't become just as taboo as for trying to be helpful, but to get rid of the taste of that horrid film out of your son's mouth, and yours, go and rent 'Raiders of the Lost Arc.'

That film is a childhood classic for me, and I'm sure he'll like it too. It had changed me when I saw it at a young age.

If not, then read him 'Tom Sawyer' or E.C. Seger's Popeye.

From an inspiring artist/ cartoonist

Will Finn said...

Bruce-i'm sure he'll like "RAIDERS" when he sees it, we are still weighing the pros and cons of if he's quite ready for some of the more graphic scenes in it... I glanced at ROTTEN TOMATOES monday to learn that others found SPEED unbearably boring, which was a relief. My son honestly doesn't have a too short attention span, this movie just drags.

It's a polarizing thing tho', and I have already talked to friends who loved it. BTW--i actually have no problem with adapting old material for updates, just as long as it's entertaining. That's a pretty ambiguous demand tho, I guess.

I also hate posting "reviews" for the most part and mainly wanted to comment on the issue of why generally speaking "live-action" cartoons look so condescendingly awful.

Will Finn said...

Michael--when i first moved to Los Angeles thirty years ago there was concrete buzz in the works to make a live-action version of TOM & JERRY for some reason. I forget who was going to produce but the idea was to dress Chevy Chase and the dimunitive Paul Williams in animal costumes and have them cavort on a giant home set! This idea percolated for years before croaking finally.

About a year or so later stunt director Hal Needham made some sort of Western comedy inspired (in all but credit) by the ROAD RUNNER, featuring a black-hatted Kirk Douglas trying to kill a white-hatted Arnold Schwartzenegger, with every contraption backfiring each time. It was an obvious rip-off but it disappeared quickly and nobody cared.

Like I said, the idea of SPEED RACER as live action doesn't bother me, the exectuion does. I really tried to keep an open mind and would have even swallowed the art direction if it hadn't turned out to be a complete waste of money and a beautiful weekend morning.

Tim said...

I often wonder how long it will take for someone to do a live action "Simpsons".... probably about the time that Macauley Culkin is old enough to play Homer.

Andrew said...

Nice post but I have to disagree strongly with drawing a connection between Dick Tracy and the conclusions you draw regarding Speed Racer. The color scheme for Dick Tracy was derived a love of the old comics page and a desire to reproduce that affect. The rather over-the-top lengths Beatty and Storaro went to create a limited color palette as homage testify to a filed attempt at craft rather than a base desire to be flashy.

Whereas the looks of Speed Racer, Babe-Pig in the City, and others are overwhelming colorful to distract, Dick Tracy was really an attempt at art.

chris said...

live action simpsons? been done!

raccoonradio said...

For one minute, there actually was a

live action Simpsons

Chris Battle said...

I suppose it's very telling that IRON MAN, which recognizes that it's comic book "world" is supposed to be realstic and treats it as such, is a huge hit... (That and also the fact that it moves quickly with no drag-- Popcorn filmmaking at it's finest)

Stephani Soejono said...

Although I'm not an expert on the old show, none of these visuals resembles it to me, the show seemed somewhat bleached out and ordinary.

The cartoon has a bit of a more naturalistic palette. When he races he passes by places like normal-looking forests, desserts, you get the idea.

PCUnfunny said...

"Similar to the 1990's debacle DICK TRACY"

I wouldn't go that far. They didn't attempt to make it look like some horrid techno world like this film. The biggest problem Dick Tracy had that it had no story at all. Also Madonna couldn't act to save her life.

Will Finn said...

Another CARTOON BREW link leads me irrevocably into a higher profile than I usually expect. Unfortunately it relates to critical comments, which I also parse out pretty sparingly here for the most part. Oh well...

With all due respect to those defending DICK TRACY, (i probably shouldn't have singled it out in the first place) I stand by my dislike for the look of it. I 'got' the reference to the 4-color comic printing but if the people behind the film really had a deep love of the visual style of the comics they would have done it as a 2-D animated film IMO.

dany boom said...

those guys made a big mistake, and i knew it from the start when i read that they planned on shooting it all like a cartoon - where "everything is always in focus."

excuse me ? everything is always in focus in a cartoon ? i really disagree and i have no idea where they got that idea. when everything is in focus IN EVERY SHOT your eyes get no rest and there is no way to tell what is important.

then they crammed it with every bloody color ever and made it look like a candy store. c'mon guys. did they really think everyone was that easy to please - just show me something shiny, and colorful, something that moves ?

maybe there was a story in there worth telling. i dont know. maybe it could have been shorter. fine, everyone says so. but there big mistake - and your right will - was underestimating or not understanding what makes cartoons beautiful to begin with.

the kirk douglas film was called the villain, i think. and yeah its almost too terrible to believe.


PCUnfunny said...

Michael: Don't forget those awful Flintstones movies.

Aaron H. Bynum said...

The long, drawn-out dialogue; the over-the-top villain; the family-life racing-life contrast; the at times insipid and unbelievable nature of the racing; the repetitive nature of the storytelling...

I hate to say it, but that's pretty much all that the original Speed Racer (1967) was.

Whit said...

The 1979 live action Hal Needham Road Runner picture, "The Villain," stands as one peculiar specimen in the 'What were they thinking?' realm. An all-star cast wasted. There was also an attempt, in the early 1980's, to sell a feature length live action script starring two leads named "Tom and Jerry" as a couple of newspaper men. Thankfully that one never sold. The signature "Tom and Jerry" lettering adorned the cover and the script bore the MGM copyright, so the cartoon reference was clear. Chevy Chase in a furry suit would have actually been an improvement on that thing.

kustomkool said...

I thought the reason the dialogue and exposition scenes dragged on was because they were juxtaposed with such over-the-top kinetic action. I dont know how any talking head shots could compete with that stuff.

"Speed Racer" was a mess. I have been telling people I thought it was amazing and I've seen it twice already. When someone asks if it's a good movie, my response is "No, it's not a GOOD movie...but it's SOMETHING." I just don't know what that something is exactly.

The story was way too confusing considering the simple premise. And boy was it way too looooong. But there was something between a really great theme-park ride and a video game buried in there someplace. It fails on pretty much all levels but if you took about an hour of the best razzle-dazzle stuff and put THAT on an IMAX screen, I would pay to see it.

Yeah, I'm a bit of a geek.

Scott said...

I loved Speed Racer for the same reasons that everyone probably hates it. I understand that its not everyone’s cup of tea, so I am careful whom I recommend it too but that being said… I LOVED every minute of it. Loved the garish color, the complete disregard of logic and physics, the hokey acting, the bad anime rip-offs, the awesome but divertive score and even all those mushy heart-to-heart talks between Speed and Pops. I got what they were going for, and I’m sure everyone else did too… however it just wasn’t what the audience was going for I suppose.

Just innocent nutty insane fun… like playing with your hot wheels for two hours. That’s what I feel Speed Racer was supposed to be and even though it will go down in history as this total flop I’m sure that the Wachowski’s had a smile on their face the entire time while making it. That smile transferred to me while watching it.

Steven E. Gordon said...

Hey Will, I haven't seen it and probably never will. And that's mainly due to the hideous advertising - which I think is the real reason why it's bombing. Really bad art direction.
If a film does poor BO on the second weekend then I think you can point more to bad storytelling/pacing/etc that could create bad word of mouth (which actually doesn't seem to be the case - I'm seeing a lot of fanboy sites actually giving it fairly positive reviews), but for a film to do bad BO on it's first weekend it has to come down to the audience not wanting to even check it out. Which could, in this case, be due to the ads showing some over the top art direction. Or maybe no one really was ever interested in seeing Speed Racer except for some Anime geeks.
I also agree with your assesment of Dick Tracey - what an embarrassing film. To put it in perspective I thought Madonna was actually the best thing in it.

Dan szilagyi said...

i'm sure everyone has had their say on this movie already, i saw it to prove to myself that it was going to be what i thought it is, which is a boring long and crappy movie.
Why is it all of those things? the over the top colors, the fact that it seems like someone took charlie and the chocolate factory(recent one) and mashed in mario cart racing and called it speed racer.

Hollywood just picked up the "anime" bandwagon so expect to see alot more live-action anime based movies soon, some could be good if done well.

overall i hope that someone up there in studios looks pass getting some quick bucks and comes to understand that if a cartoon is bad to start with ( intended to be cheesy or not) its going to be bad PERIOD

glad to hear lots of people thought what i was when i saw it

Steve said...

I watched Speed Racer, but only because it was on between a couple of Saturday morning shows I liked, maybe Looney Tunes and Land of the Lost. I never saw the point. But the real reason I had no interest in the film was that it looked awful in the ads.

Maybe if I were a Wachowski fanboy I would have been more interested, but The Matrix, for all its fantastic imagery, was kind of dopey. I enjoyed it anyway, for the look, but those awful sequels wore out the Wachowskis' welcome for me.

I loved the look of the Dick Tracy film, but the film itself was dull.

Patrick said...

I'm never going to see this film in a theatre because I know it will be guaranteed to make me motion sick. Lucas made me sick enough with some of the space battles in the Star Wars prequels, where way too much was happening and EVERYTHING was in focus. I find it incredible that modern visual artists would treat depth of field as some kind of archaic chemical photography artifact or limitation, without realizing the way it mirrors the brain's functions in visual processing. It ought to be taught on day one.

I've had to explain depth of field to beginning 3D animators who were frustrated that their backgrounds were coming out "blurry" without ever realizing how much time and effort had been put into developing that feature as a default, processor intensive function to prevent a beginner's renders from looking "phony". I've seen a lot of "motion graphics" artists praising this film, which only reinforces to me the notion that motion graphics artists aren't animators, or filmmakers, and should constrain themselves to overlays and other things meant to be read in 2D.

I also wince every time I read a reference to the original Speed Racer series as "beloved" or "treasured" by a US audience. I don't know if the Wachowskis actually had a sincere love of the series from their childhoods, or if they just fed that to the publicity machine.

I remember that from the first time I saw the US version of the show at what must have been nine or ten, I was only ever entertained by it in ironic fashion. The limited animation, the silly characters and plots, the badly translated and badly dubbed dialog, all had me convinced as a child that I was not to be taking this cartoon as seriously as it took itself. I was certain that it was being broadcast as a joke, or as a cheap time-slot filler as others have mentioned. Something akin to broadcasting the Canadian translations of Ultra 7, which I discovered when I was much older, but were being broadcast in the same time slots for the same budgetary considerations.

That anyone in their right mind would think that Speed Racer was a property worthy of modern development, without a fully ironic treatment, astounds me. If it was the single property for which the Wachowskis felt their greatest, genuine childhood nostalgia, I think that might say all we need to know about why they seem completely unable to tell a compelling story.

Steven E. Gordon said...

the Wachowskis best movie: Bound.

Jeff Pidgeon said...

I enjoyed Speed Racer, but I don't think it's a good movie. It is too long, and the action doesn't seem staged for the big screen. It's so densely cut that it feels like it might have been edited solely on a laptop or AVID, without ever checking the results in a screening room. I'll be curious to see how the film fares on home video.

I've seen movies of equal merit/content perform far better at the box office, so I'm assuming that either a) nobody wanted to see a Speed Racer movie, or b) the visual style really put audiences off.

I don't think the editing was the problem - the Bourne films are cut about as fast, and they made a lot of money.

I had no affectionate baggage attached to the original show - I didn't see it as a kid, and it did nothing for me when I watched it in college. I just read the original manga, and it's not much better. I'm not sure why this show is considered part of the boomer pantheon other than, well, it was on at the time.

I liked the look of Dick Tracy - I'm drawn to films that try to create their own stylized worlds.

I do agree, though, that many cartoon-to-film adaptations are pointless, and for some reason are garish and cluttered instead of spare and streamlined (the Schumacher Batman films and the live-action Flintstones come to mind). Most of these films can't produce a compelling story to carry the slim material, and wind up wearing out their welcome early.

Unfortunately (as you know), many modern film projects are bought and sold by audience familiarity. Even though many of the live-action cartoons bomb, enough of them hit - and hit big (like The Flintstones, or Alvin) - to justify familiarity breeding success.

I'm not disagreeing with you, just adding my two cents!

PS - I was a little taken aback when Spritle flipped the bird. Who is this film for again?

Will Finn said...

Hi Jeff, thanks for the two cents, always welcome.

Just to be clear, the fast and dense cutting didn't bother me--when I am critical of the editing I mean the overall story editing, which was just too pokey for my taste.

Liking the new I.D. button you drew too!

Roger L. said...

I have a strange attraction to Speed Racer the film. Rather, it's not a film, but some kind of kinetic moving wall-paper that reminds me of cartoons kinda... and Japanese-based animation, a little... and the Wachowski Brothers most of all.