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Why Speed Racer (2008) is a Perfect Adaptation of a Classic Anime

Speed Racer 2008 movie poster

Anime live action film adaptations are frequently hated and for a good reason. Whether it be due to incompetent filmmaking, studios and filmmakers not understanding the source material, or more frequently a combination of the two. Despite live action adaptations often being despised by anime fans, they see no sign of slowing down, as recently a live action adaptation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is currently in production by Taika Waititi. However, one anime adaptation that doesn’t get enough recognition is the 2008 film Speed Racer. Directed by the duo Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Speed Racer was based upon the popular anime series of the same name from the 1960s. 

Growing up, Speed Racer (played by Emile Hirsch) cared for only one thing: driving race cars. Being from a racing family, his older brother Rex (played by Scott Porter) is one of the world’s best up-and-coming racers. One fateful night, Rex is killed in a crash during a race at Casa Cristo 5000. Years later, Speed quickly makes a new name for himself in the racing world, catching the attention of business tycoon Arnold Royalton (played by Roger Allam) who wishes for Speed to sign on to Royalton Industries. Speed declines the offer, prompting Royalton to reveal the corrupt nature of the racing world and Royalton Industries. Teaming up with Inspector Detector (played by Benno Furmann) and the enigmatic Racer X (played by Matthew Fox), Speed seeks to change the world of racing in addition to winning the Grand Prix. 


Speed Racer 2008 Mach 6

Back in 2008, I remember this film being advertised everywhere, on TV commercials, cereal boxes, Fruit-by-the-Foot boxes, Lunchables, and even McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. No matter where you turned, you couldn’t escape the marketing. Perhaps that was one reason why I was less enthusiastic to watch it. But something about the film, the flashing and swirling lights and fast-paced, thrill-filled setting and tone piqued my interest. But despite that, I never watched it until almost 16 years later. Up until then, I’ve heard rather negative reviews about the film, with many claiming that it was damn near unwatchable due to the Wachowskis relying too much on CGI, over saturated colors and dizzying swirling shots of racers driving their cars. And while those are some legitimate criticisms, I disagree with the notion that they make the film unwatchable. To me, 2008’s Speed Racer is one of the most underrated live action anime adaptations that I’ve seen. 

As anime fans themselves, the Wachowskis made sure to shoot the film as close to an anime as possible. Some of my favorite moments where I think this is on full display is how they shoot the first two races. The first one has Speed chasing the ghost of Rex, with the film cutting back and forth between the past and present to illustrate how much of a skilled racer Speed has become. During the second race, they once again use a similar technique, although this time blending both present and future during Royalton’s spiel to Speed about what will transpire during the second race and the legal aftermath. What’s unique is that we see what is about to happen during Royalton’s speech, with the following scene being the conclusion of the race and the Racer family facing legal trouble. It’s a filmmaking technique that I have rarely seen used in film, and certainly one that I did not expect from an anime adaptation and I am thoroughly impressed that the Wachowskis were successfully able to pull off such a feat. 


The Racer family from Speed Racer 2008

But that’s not where it ends when it comes to making it as close to an anime as possible. Unlike many live action anime adaptations, 2008’s Speed Racer fully leans into its more cartoonish elements, as seen with the overly designed cities, cars, over saturated color tone and facial expressions and action sequences. The cars all appear weightless which makes us feel as if they are defying gravity. For example, Speed’s Mach 6 is able to easily jump over multiple cars to get out of a tough spot or gain additional distance, in addition to defying the laws of physics as seen when he spins in circles while effortlessly traversing through multiple dangerous race courses around the world. If that isn’t outrageous enough, there’s a scene where Racer X literally punches an incoming driver so hard it not only knocks him out, but also flips the guy’s entire car over! 

While I get that it isn’t realistic at all, it is an anime adaptation, so you should treat it as such. For all its faults and imperfections, it’s a thoroughly entertaining watch, something that most live action anime adaptations fail to do. I absolutely love how the Wachowskis use various art styles to differentiate fiction from reality. For example, Speed Racer’s dreams of automobile racing are crudely drawn in crayon to show his childlike innocence and fantasies. Additionally, Spritle and his pet chimpanzee Chim Chim’s fantasy action sequence while watching TV is animated, reminiscent of a fight scene from a comic book from the 1970s.  


Casa Cristo race from Speed Racer 2008

Unlike most other anime adaptations, Speed Racer (2008) successfully pulls off the fashion from the anime into live action seamlessly. Speed, Pops, Mom, his little brother Spritle and his girlfriend Trixie all look like their anime counterparts. Speed even wears his exact outfit from the anime during the Casa Cristo 5000 race and Emile Hirsch easily pulls off the look. Speaking of which, the entire cast is actually pretty spot on. My favorite performances have to be Paulie Litt as Spritle and John Goodman as Pops. Goodman brings a stern, yet warm cadence to Pops, making him seem abrasive, while deep down, caring deeply about Speed and his family. He even learns from his past mistakes with Rex, and encourages Speed to follow his heart, wherever it may take him. And while some people may not like Spritle, I actually thought he brought a necessary comic relief to Speed’s straight man. And this is coming from someone who usually can’t tolerate annoying kids in films! 

Speed Racer (2008) was the next biggest movie that the Wachowskis made after The Matrix franchise. It was made on a budget of $120 million and made back only $94 million at the box office, becoming a financial bomb. Prior to this failure, there were plans of a possible sequel that would explore certain character threads that were left loose at the end of the 2008 film. However, due to its underwhelming performance at the box office and mixed reception from critics, all plans of a sequel were shelved. But despite this failure upon its release, the film has grown a substantial cult following in recent years. Personally, Speed Racer (2008) is not one of my favorite films, hell it’s not even on my list of favorite films. Yet it has such a unique style and wholesome themes about family, loyalty and what it means to be an athlete that I can’t help but enjoy it!   


Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer in Speed Racer 2008

Now my only issue that I really have is the casting of Speed Racer’s Asian characters. While the legendary Hiroyuki Sanada portrays the Japanese head of Musha Motors, fellow Japanese racing siblings Taejo and Horuko Togokahn are played by Rain and Yu Nan, a South Korean and Chinese actor, respectively. Meanwhile, a Yakuza racer seen in the finale is played by Joon Park, someone who’s also South Korean. Although this is a small complaint that really doesn’t affect the overall quality of the film, it does serve to homogenize East Asian people as just one large group of people that have one conjoined culture. And as a fan of anime and Hong Kong cinema, I’m surprised and disappointed that the Wachowskis would make such a mistake.  

While it is a far from perfect film, with some questionable CGI and repetitive effects, 2008’s Speed Racer is truly unique among the dumpster fire that is expected of live action anime adaptations. With strong themes of family, loyalty and the art of what it means to be an athlete, Speed Racer (2008) is one of the most intrepid live action anime adaptations that I’ve come across. And while it isn’t my favorite movie or live action adaptation, I can’t help but rewatch this movie time and time again. Despite what others may say, Speed Racer (2008) is a truly bold and heart-racing watch! For those who enjoy a good adrenaline-inducing ride, this may be just the right film for you! 


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