10 Years Later, Why the Wachowskis’ Flop ‘Speed Racer’ Is Actually a Masterpiece

Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer. Warner Bros.

The Odd Ducks is going to be an ongoing column looking back at misunderstood masterpieces, well-intentioned disasters and films so weird you can’t believe they exist. Sometimes, they may even be all three at once.

Speed Racer came out 10 years ago today, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t shut up about it since. But for good reason. I think it remains one of the most criminally overlooked films in recent memory and also one of the most oddly inspiring. While I know there are fellow fans who would wholly agree with this superlative, the notion runs contrary to the conventional wisdom surrounding the film’s release.

Coming off of the unparalleled success of the The Matrix films (even with the under-baked reaction to Matrix: Revolutions), fans were so excited for the Wachowski siblings’ next cinematic foray into something new. And it was going to be Speed Racer! An update of the beloved ’60s anime that many had grown up with! It implied there would electrifying, matrix-esque car chases! Frenetic action! All from the two filmmakers who had come to define the new serious-cool-ass cyberpunk! Hooray!  

But for those who loved the leather-clad adult fare of their previous work, they had no idea what to do with this fluffy, neon-soaked bit of confection that was being sold to them. And neither did the general audience. Speed Racer bombed, and it bombed hard. And as a result, many came to dismiss the film without ever seeing it. Or worse, those who saw it simply had no idea what to do with it.

Which is unfortunate.

But to really get on board with Speed Racer, you have to accept its varied intentions. Starting with the fact that yes, this is indeed a true-blue PG kids film. Because of that, it will be unapologetically goofy, over the top and prominently feature monkey gags. Moreover, you have to accept that it is going to devote itself to the notion of being “a live-action cartoon,” one that constantly eschews realism in favor of a hyper-stylized, bright aesthetic as far removed from The Matrix as I can think of.

A lot of people argued that the film’s aesthetic existed in the uncanny valley (which suggests “humanoid objects that appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings, and which elicit uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers”). But, to me, it works precisely because it’s not even trying for the in-between. Instead, it’s trying to something closer to the humans-in-toon-space of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Simultaneously, you have to accept that this PG kids film will also be, at times, incredibly serious: a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute epic that delves into convoluted plot-lines of mystery identities, corporate white-collar intrigue, nonsensical plot fake-outs, a surprising amount of gun violence and even a weird climactic rant about stock price manipulation. And all the while, you have to accept that within this, the emotional backbone of the film will be a surprisingly wholesome exhibition of family love, understanding and togetherness.

Christina Ricci, Emile Hirsch, Roger Allam, Paulie Litt, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman in Speed Racer. Warner Bros.

Yes, all of this exists within Speed Racer. And, tonally-speaking, I mean it when I say it is one of the weirdest movies I have ever seen in my entire life. (It’s also a testament to the trouble that a lot of anime and non-naturalistic Japanese storytelling has in terms of adaptation.) And so I get why that is hard for people to swallow, I really do.

But what we’re really talking about is the push-pull of tone-changing filmmaking, wherein I will argue until I’m blue in the face that singular tones are dead-ends to adventurous storytelling. For instance, I love the work of Christopher Nolan, but if you just layer an entire movie in a singular tone you are, in a way, just lying to the audience. From start to finish, Nolan’s films feel propulsive, adult and entirely serious—even if when they, you know, aren’t on the deeper textual level of a moment. But that’s all part of the emotional coding for the audience and in service of the end goal: it makes them feel serious, too. All because it validates their interests as being equally serious.

This is why so many of those inclined to like singular tones have trouble with the work of someone like Sam Raimi. I hear people commenting that his films are “too corny” all the time; that word choice is both telling and bizarre. Because, while Raimi’s movies can be goofy and over the top, they are also achingly dark, sincere, and full of emotion. So really “too corny” is just code for: “this was often goofy and I don’t like movies that make me feel like my interests are goofy.” Which, ironically, I find to be an incredibly juvenile attitude—one that is not trying to be an adult. It’s trying to dress up kid-interests to seem adult, when really adulthood is just rolling with the punches and embracing things for whatever they really are.

The ability to roll with punches and follow a movie into different emotional realms, especially goofy ones within serious narratives, is the ability to not take yourself too seriously. It is the ability to be adult and roll into all kinds of states of emotion, not just the ones we think we want to be in. To that point, Speed Racer basically requires you to roll with the punches on a pretty extreme level. Yes, the silliness feels silly. But if you accept that, then the danger is dangerous, too. And yes, the epic race across the desert goes on “too long,” but in doing so, it genuinely feels epic.

The film is always itself. Especially as it slides back and forth between dramatic and comic emphasis with the blistering assuredness of pure operatic glee, all while living and breathing every moment sincerely. And what else would an 11-year-old’s fever dream about weaponized race cars, ninja fights and family togetherness be but achingly sincere?

Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer. Warner Bros.

Even the much ballyhooed stock price rant is inspired: that’s the point of the film’s laser targeted messaging. While so many kids’ films depict the ethics of villainy as some mustache twirling vehicle for evil and evil alone, Speed Racer has the guts to tell you that evils of the world are far more mundane (and lucrative). But as one-note as the stock market speech feels (as Roger Allam gives a deliciously unhinged performance), the message itself is not some reductive estimation of art and commercialism. Given literally everything else about Speed and his family’s business, Speed Racer is arguing there is nothing wrong with success, fandom, and connection between the two. It is simply pointing out that any system that puts the tiniest bit of money and “the perpetual machine of capitalism” over the sanctity of that connection, will only ever manage to sever that same connection.

That may seem “too adult” for a kids film, but I think it’s inspired, especially as kids are a lot smarter than you think (especially when you don’t talk down to them and trust them to handle things). So, if you buy this notion, and if you buy the family drama that has brought Speed to the final race, then it all comes together thematically into one of the most electric, abstract and emotional endings I can think of—one that wholly reaffirms that we are so much more than any single moment, but the product of everyone who helped get us there along the way. I cry every damn time I watch it.

And nestled within that ending is the larger meta-narrative of the Wachowskis’ entire career, their core theme if you will: the notion of intrinsic identity and becoming your best self. I’ll admit, I often have a lot of trouble with the idea of “destiny” in modern storytelling, precisely because I see a lot of irresponsibility associated with it. What used to be a giant metaphor for hubris has sadly become short-hand wish-fulfillment to believing you are the specialist hero in the universe, an attitude that often reeks of a lot of unintentional uber-mensch vibes.

But within Speed Racer, the metaphor of “race car driver” doubles with artist, or any other childhood dream—the kinds of dreams that must be stuck to, and chased after, with gleeful joy in order to bring said dreams to life. More than that, the metaphor gains so much within the context of the Wachowskis’ personal lives, as we now can look at so much of their work within the landscape of trans messaging—to the point that a lot of their work now has slid into “full text” metaphors of trans identity shifting, such as with Cloud Atlas and Sense 8. In that, I find their work to be the most powerful. By reclaiming destiny and the hero’s journey, they take it all away from “you are destined to be better than everyone else” and make it instead “you are becoming who you always really were, while discovering empathy in all those around you.” This is precisely the sort of loving, hallmark messaging that many too-cool-for-school folks would eye-roll at, but there is no doubting that the Wachowskis’ arrival at this earnestness is both hard-fought and hard-won.

Nicholas Elia as young Speed Racer. Warner Bros.

This is all not to say that I’m unaware of the contradictions within their work, most specifically within the catch 22 of violent glorification against anti-violence. But within the “hyper language” of cinema, their violence just becomes part of the operatic aching sincerity.

But I understand that a lot of people aren’t sure what to do with the aching sincerity of it all. I remember how many people saw Jupiter Ascending and made fun of Eddie Radmayne’s truly gonzo performance, but I feel like he was the only one who really knew what movie he was in. He wasn’t pushing it too far; everyone else’s plasticity was weirdly holding it back. I genuinely love him in that film. Sure, the performance might be “too corny” and make you feel “weird,” but it’s precisely the kind of weird that opens the world up and imbues it with life and verve.

Maybe weird and jarring is exactly what we need. For, in a cinematic world full of carefully structured disaffection, the Wachowskis are still the most passionate, jarring and unworried filmmakers we have. And in that journey of self-discovery, it’s the odd mix of gee-golly sincerity of Speed Racer that is both exemplary of (and marks the transitional point of) their entire career.

Which only leaves me with one question: why, in a career full of identity questions, systematic oppression and selfhood, is their most exemplary film about the message of family perseverance and togetherness? In truth, I don’t know what their relationship is like with their larger nuclear family, nor does it matter. What we do know, and have always known, is who Lana and Lilly Wachowski are to each other: friends, collaborators, sisters. They are as loving a literal family as we have ever seen in cinema. And within their art, they’ve been telling us of their specific, powerful experience in the most universal and commercial of cinematic ways.

For well past 10 years now, they’ve telling us by shooting, chopping, rocking out, screaming, singing, dressing up, joking, lecturing, goofing, laughing and anything and everything in between. Many often roll their eyes at such naked, heartfelt audacity. “Too corny,” they say out of the side of their mouths. But such disdain is all part of the pains of being pure at heart.

And really, they are the joys.

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10 Years Later, Why the Wachowskis’ Flop ‘Speed Racer’ Is Actually a Masterpiece