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Today's 'Speed Racer' less alien than original

By Joshua Gillin

This ain't your father's Speed Racer — directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have seen to that.

In trying to make the classic anime series appeal to younger audiences, the brothers ran the risk of alienating core fans, as happened with franchises like Batman, The Incredible Hulk and even Star Wars.

But last summer's money-printer Transformers proved this formula could work. Michael Bay's brand wasn't the same as the beloved 1980s cartoon and toy line, but it was definitely a version of the Transformers. And that's what Speed Racer is, a version of the seminal cartoon.

Sure, there's Mom and Pops Racer and Racer X and, lo and behold, the Mach 5 in the (fiberglass) flesh. There's a second act that pays homage to the cartoon, with a rough-and-tumble road rally, the letter-coded gadgetry Speed uses to defy the laws of physics and an appearance by ol' Snake Oiler.

But 2008's Speed Racer is not the alien joyride the anime was when it debuted stateside in 1967, or even when it ran on MTV during the wee hours in the '90s. It is Speed Racer as seen through a prism of 40 years of Japanese cultural integration.

The racetracks and paint-swapping action have been lifted from familiar video games like Wipeout Pure and Extreme G Racing. Commuters can now buy a Mazda RX-8 that looks suspiciously similar to the Mach 5. Flashing neon lights and giant video billboards can be seen along any common stretch of interstate.

So it's important to remember that Speed Racer left early anime offerings like Gigantor and Astro Boy in the dust, offering intense action and sublimated themes while capitalizing on things 10-year-old boys thought were cool — namely race cars and pet chimpanzees. It also managed to shoehorn ideas like familial loyalty and proper decision-making into the mix without seeming preachy. With themes like these, Speed Racer influenced a generation that would appreciate later anime like Space Battleship Yamato (a.k.a. Star Blazers), Voltron and Robotech.

Some changes, of course, are expected in the modern version. Trixie is no longer content to map the course from her helicopter, and the fate of Speed's brother, Rex, more resembles a version lifted from the original Japanese Mach GoGoGo. Spritle and Chim-Chim even show how imports like Dragon Ball Z, Ghost in the Shell and Bleach color the lives of today's youth, fitting for a movie made by two brothers whose Matrix trilogy was obviously weaned on anime.

But with all that updating, the Wachowskis couldn't change the worst thing about the series: a numbing backstory so long-winded the film's target audience of 10-year-olds will get fidgety. The movie's plot bears a passing resemblance to episodes like "The Great Plan" and "The Most Dangerous Race" and "The Trick Race," but all we really need is a bare-bones plot to provide a conceit for the action.

Maybe that's what they have in mind for the sequel.

Joshua Gillin can be reached at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Today's 'Speed Racer' less alien than original 05/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:38pm]

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