always seems ironic and convenient when your name matches your occupation,
as in the case of Speed Racer. Yes, that’s his formal name (even though he
wears a “G” on his never-changed shirt and an “M” on his crash helmet). He’s
as competent, loyal and true as a Boy Scout, and is so obsessed with car
racing that you never see him doing anything else, not even eating or
bowling or watching TV.
most cases, he doesn’t even sleep, despite the endless protests of his
friends and family, who beg him to rest before a big race. But there’s good
ol’ unflappable Speed, burning the midnight oil, turning a socket wrench
underneath the car, his anime eyes wide with concentration. Either Speed is
just simply supercharged and super pumped about tomorrow’s big race, or
Speed’s on speed.
Living in a quasi-dream of a netherworld that is not quite Japan and not
quite America, Speed is, quite literally, driven. It doesn’t seem to be the
thrill of the race that motivates him, even though there are still thrills a
plenty on this DVD that holds up surprisingly well (you’ll be amazed at how
powerfully these compelling stories still grip your heart and get your blood
racing, even though you are no longer seven years old).
Simply, Speed seems to be intensely focused, deeply stoic and fiercely
determined, which is how we like our cartoon heroes. It’s his weighty one-dimensionalness
that keeps us glued to his adventures. We learn from him that winning isn’t
everything, or even the only thing – it’s how you get there and how many
opportunities you are awarded to help others. Of course, Speed has an
exciting (though deadly) career, and perhaps if he were employed in the auto
department of a Caldor store or working Bay #3 of a Pep Boys, he wouldn’t be
as enthused and more apt to snooze.
Even though his family is slightly dysfunctional, they are tremendously
supportive. There’s his crusty-but-lovable pop (Pops), who arrogantly and
illogically leaves his cushy job with a large engineering firm in order to
perfect his marvelous wonder car, the Mach 5. Pops is a total fascist to his
family, but they tolerate him because he’s got the engineering goods in his
whacked-out head – the Mach 5 is their ticket to ride. Unlike the 1989 Ford
Escort, which tends to stall at high speeds, the Mach 5 comes standard with
rotary swords for cutting trees (great for forest driving!), grip tires, an
underwater oxygen chamber, special illumination, a periscope and that
all-important homing robot for when you need to send for help when you are
being held at gunpoint or kidnapped.
Pops almost “blows a gasket” when he first learns his son is racing in this
precious super machine. However, Speed Racer and the Mach 5 take to each
other like STP to an engine; once Pops sees the income the boy could net
from winning tournaments, he quickly changes his warped mind. And this is
years before NASCAR.
Moms Racer is the real curio. Her real name is most likely something like
Carburatoretta or Stickshift-anne. She’s a looker, a glamour-puss sashaying
around in a tight pantsuit and a tiny apron with hearts sewn into them.
Though the family is immersed in daily danger, she doesn’t seem to care
about anything except serving oven-baked cookies. Call it her protection
mechanism; most likely, this obsessive act is just her little way to
suppress the horror of her own reality: her oldest son had run away from
home and had never come back, her middle son (only 18) risks his life daily
in a death machine, and her youngest is under age ten and under absolutely
no adult supervision – he eats candy until his teeth rot and tends to
stowaway on evildoer’s vehicles and his closest friend is a clothed chimp.
There’s Trixie, of course, Speed’s look-alike girlfriend, who is rather
accomplished for a pre-feminist gal pal. She can fly a plane and a maneuver
a helicopter; she can also give a wicked karate chop when confronted with
evil. However, she remains perky and upbeat throughout -- her trademark is
to giggle and wink. Mysteriously, her blouse sports the letter “M,” like a
scarlet letter. We’re left to wonder why.
Racer X (who is
originally referred to as “The Masked Racer,” but the narrator drops that
after one episode), is really Rex Racer (Speed’s older, normal-named
brother). Years before, Rex left home in a hissy fit after a wicked argument
with Pops. Of course, this seems to be a rather lengthy period to hold a
grudge against your entire family, but consider the source. Also, it deepens
and sentimentalizes the plot lines, as Rex, under the mask, keeps a watchful
eye out for his younger brother.
Ironically, Rex had moved on to become the world’s best racing car driver
(imagine that “most likely to” in your high school yearbook!), but he is
known to have bad luck follow him in every race he enters (namely, other
racers die!). However, he consistently stumps the media by wearing a
mask and, even though it’s obvious to anyone with a brain, he gives no
information as to who he is and where he came from (put this into context:
there was no internet and no Matt Drudge at this time).
Every time Racer X enters a scene, we are clued in – the narrator will
remind us, “Unknown to Speed, this is his older brother, Rex, who ran away
from home years ago.” We wonder if this announcement starts to wear on Rex
every time he makes his entrance, yet it doesn’t seem to bruise his ego that
he is always referred to in the context of his younger brother.
Nevertheless, it must be a drag at parties.
The real star of the show, of course, is the theme song. You know it -- you
love it, but you probably didn’t realize that it was written in one
afternoon and recorded in practically one take. The original Japanese
version (the show was called Mach Go Go Go!) was an un-zippy,
over-long, marching-band style tune, and it didn’t make the scene. The
American team westernized it, and viola: one of the greatest theme
songs in the history of television. The jazzy closing credits, featuring a
mind-blowing illustrative history of the automobile, with actual models
driven by the show’s characters, is iPOd worthy. However, we’re still
waiting for those damned flying cars.
The voiceover talent works overtime, and the overlapping of characters’
voices is both painfully obvious and pleasurably corny. Former child model
and struggling actor Peter Fernandez found his niche dubbing Japanese
entertainment for American audiences (Astro Boy, Marine Boy,
Ultra Man, and several Godzilla flicks). Not only was he in
charge of the entire U.S. translation/production of Speed Racer
(trickier than it sounds), he was the voice of both Speed and Racer X.
Corinne Orr was the voice of Trixie, Mom Racer and
Spritel (Speed’s younger
brother). You may also know her as the voice of Snuggle, the fabric softener
bear. Voiceover vet Jack Grimes played Speed’s friend Sparky and
simian friend Chim Chim.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the voiceover talent, the series will turn
you as Japanese as it gets. Characters gasp in unison, or exclaim a long,
drawn out expression of “ahhh’s,” “awww’s” and “oooooh’s!” Evildoers get
punched, karate chopped and knocked out, but they never die. They say
unlikely things such as “Unhand me!” and “now’s our chance!” and “if you
don’t make this jump, you’ll fall a thousand feet into the river. Good luck.”
And all evildoers have New York accents – just like in real life.
Speed isn’t exactly the “demon on wheels” that the song makes him out to be,
and you wonder how the cast can wander around the Alps in the middle of a
winter storm without a stitch of warm clothing, and Speed's insistance on
wearing an ascot is distracting, but there is a lot you can forgive here.
The original animators were so in love with American culture – you can see
how it was absorbed and handed back to us so lovingly and with such care.
It’s exactly how you remember it, yet somehow better.
Go, watch this DVD. Adventure’s waiting just ahead. GO!
All rights reserved. Posted: December 12, 2004.