Why Speed Racer is the Only Good Hollywood Anime Adaptation

You know, with so many terrible anime live action adaptations coming out that have almost no chance at being good, it's important to remember that they still have a chance. History says there's no way any of this will ever be good, and history usually proves itself right when it comes to awful Hollywood trends that manage to last for decades. But there is one significant exception in there and no, it isn't Edge of Tomorrow, that was based on a book and manga, not an anime. No, I'm talking about 2008's Speed Racer, directed by the Wachowskis and genuinely one of the most delightfully stupid movies I have ever seen.

As my colleague Tom has said in the past, “All live action remakes of animation presume that animation is incomplete or imperfect.” This is usually the big problem whenever Hollywood tries adapting anything animated into live action, though with significant exception to Disney, which is a whole other kettle of fish. This problem gets worse with anime, as producers tend to want to westernize it as much as humanly possible for commercial reasoning that doesn't even make sense, usually robbing a work of not only its visual energy, but also of its thematic meat. The Ghost in the Shell movie is a great example, as it tries adding a half-baked trans-humanism theme simply to justify white washed casting, while changing the complex and interesting ideas of the various source material at hand to a dud standard evil government/corporation make superhuman who wants revenge plot. As for that Akira movie that's been in production Hell, every single version of it we've seen a script for has been ungodly terrible from concept alone. Hollywood trying to westernize an anime usually results in racism or a generic spooky Ring girl singing French nursery rhymes (that was actually in a previous Akira script).

Speed Racer is about the only real exception to this rule, and we can mostly thank the Wachowskis for this. The two are huge anime fans, and their previous effect heavy outings have been a good indication of their love for using silly, ridiculous lunacy for the sake of exciting action set-pieces. Handing them a retro anime to go wild with was the best possible decision for a Speed Racer film. See, the Wachowskis' approach to Speed Racer was not to try and improve on the source material, but to embrace what it was and try to make that into a proper new whole. While its contemporaries look at their sources with disgust or an unearned sense of superiority, Speed Racer is absolutely in love with not just the anime it's based on, but it's greater cultural impact.

There are talking really fast jokes here, but they never swipe at the anime, but just embrace the silliness that came about from that poor dub work. The action is explosive and cartoony, willed with all sorts of absurd sight gags like giant springs and super jumps. It's almost like if Mario Kart had realistic graphics, less horrifying and more Saturday morning in effect. But more importantly, the characters in the movie all treat this extremely seriously, or just as a matter of fact. Speed Racer understands that to make a good homage of something, you need to take it as seriously as the thing you're paying tribute to has. Speed Racer is funny, but never at the expense of the anime that it comes from.

The film also has a strong structure and likable characters. Roger Allam makes for an incredibly effective scumbag businessman villain, managing to be both warm and friendly one moment, but threatening and heartless the next. Emile Hirsch has a solid script to work with as the titular Speed Racer, but he also went the extra mile and watched as much of the anime as possible to get a feel for the cheesy style of the film and how serious he should act in character. Everyone making up Speed's family gets a moment to shine, especially Paulie Litt as Speed's little brother and the main comedic relief, and surprisingly, they actually got a good performance out of Matthew Fox as Racer X. The fact that his role is supposed to be a bit dickish and hammy made the casting perfect.

It's a simple film, but one that leaves you with a smile on your face. It's also arguably more animation than live action, as CG is used heavily throughout to recreate the anime's sillier sequences. There is absolute no attempt to try and take the exaggerated styles of the source material and make them more realistic, and that gives the film its own special flavor. Speed Racer the film adores the very flawed anime as a sort of kitsch piece, seeing something great in its strengths and flaws mixed together. It's sort of like that new Kong movie in many respects, a film using the technology of the present day to do things its source material couldn't do just by technical limitation, yet sticks as close to a similar ridiculous feel as what it's building on. That's not to say Speed Racer is the perfect way to make every anime movie, not at all, but it has a lesson all future adaptations need to learn.

If you want to make a good anime adaptation, you gotta like what it is first, then stick with that for the foundation.


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