Over the weekend, I took the kids to see Speed Racer. We only made it through an hour — Keagan was repeatedly stage-diving into his seat and I worried we were annoying other patrons — and his fidgetiness speaks to the fact that the movie is too damn talky. I mean, we’re talking about the usual “evil corporations” plot, in this case trying to use the protagonist to fix races. It shouldn’t take that long to get across. But moreover, it’s another one of those “talk, don’t show” mistakes that you’d expect people like the Wachowskis not to make. Think back to the first act of The Matrix, how you were lured in by sequences like Neo in his cubicle getting a package, which contains a cell phone, which rings as soon as he touches it, and on the other end is Morpheus, telling Neo things about the police raid on his office as they’re happening, things that nobody on the other end of the phone call could possibly know… and with each exchange between the two, you’re thinking “what the hell is going on here?” Where the heck was that skillful story-telling in Speed Racer (or, for that matter, the second and third Matrix movies)?
That said, the visuals and the action and the sense of fun in the movie are underrated by the critics. Quinn is still saying “go Speed Racer go!” a couple times a day for no particular reason.
Roger Ebert’s review takes an unnecessary side-track into the minimal merits of the original anime series, apparently casting aspersions that it and other anime of the time were of a lower quality than other contemporary series. Having grown up at the time, I don’t buy it. I’ll take the low sheet count in the original Speed Racer for the sake of unconventional story elements, like the irony that Speed doesn’t know that his rival Racer X is actually his long-lost brother. To the Japanese, this has a bittersweet flavor that American TV in the 70’s, cartoons or otherwise, was incapable of. By comparison, I distinctly remember Batman and Robin having a chat on Super Friends… and by “chat” I mean that their lips and only their lips were moving, for two damn minutes… about why they couldn’t scale an eight-foot chain-link fence. By comparison, Speed Racer had cars frickin’ exploding in the opening credits.
Over on Anime News Network, Zac Bertschy points out what may be the most remarkable trait of the film: “it’s clear they’ve managed to perfectly emulate the unironic, impossibly sincere and simplistic storytelling of the original show.”
And that’s the element that makes it perfect for kids, and pisses off people who think too much about this kind of thing. There’s a wonderful quote I saw once — ah, thank you Google for finding it again for me — that Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play. Yet after a certain point, we resist this natural desire to treat our fun seriously. A sci-fi or fantasy film cannot take itself too seriously, the critics insist. I’ve never seen this position played better than it was by Mike Wallace, in an interview with Rod Serling, on the eve of the premiere of The Twilight Zone. The video’s on YouTube, with the critical question split right between parts 1 and 2, with Wallace following up a question about self-censorship versus doing meaningful work in the half-hour format by asking Serling, with absolute seriousness, “but you’re not going to be able to are you? You’ve given up on writing anything of importance for television.”
For what it’s worth, I consider The Twilight Zone to be the best TV show of all time, but that certainly wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. Sci-fi was Captain Video and Commander Cody… silly trifles for children. The idea then, and today, of fantastic elements being taken seriously still rubs people the wrong way. Write about poor people in the South, or lonely drifters in diners, and you deserve seriousness. Write about wars in the stars or mobile suits and you’d better have your tongue in your cheek. Or go camp. Or better yet, become a complete parody of yourself.
Yet how often does this approach actually work? Tongue-in-cheek rarely works — a Princess Bride is a once-in-a-generation thing — and usually the subtext that gets through to the audience is the voice of the producers saying “you’re a fucking idiot to be watching this shit.”
I think that’s what pisses people off about a lot of cultish entertainment: it dares to take itself seriously.
Perfect example of what not to do: Sci-Fi’s recent Flash Gordon series. Stuck with a license that the producers apparently had no belief whatsoever in, they changed so many of the details as to end up with a bad season of Sliders (and that’s saying something). Yet, knowing that what most people remember of the property is the gawdawful 1980 Dino Di Laurentis movie, they aimed for camp. Unsurprisngly, the intelligent viewers who came for the intense drama and dark political metaphors of the new Battlestar Galactica had no need for camp nonsense.
Much better was the 1979 animated TV series, which I recently picked up when Right Stuf had a sale on BCI titles. Looking at it today, it’s clearly the most faithful adaptation of the 1930’s newspaper comic strip, and despite numerous flaws, it’s clearly a labor of love on the part of its producers. The series has a number of fascinating stories behind it, not the least of which is that it started as a live-action movie which proved unaffordable to Filmation, which sold the live-action rights to Di Laurentis, in exchange for more money to make an animated version. The movie was shelved and re-cut into the first four episodes of the Saturday morning series, finally airing as The Greatest Adventure of All, shown only once, in 1982, in the middle of the night on NBC during a week off for Saturday Night Live. It’s practically the stuff of legend, by cleverly starting the story with Flash as a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII, discovering that Hitler’s getting weapons from another world, which eventually leads him to adventures on the planet Mongo. Someone dumped their VHS recording to YouTube, but it wasn’t licensed for the DVD box. Oops.
The DVD does describe some awfully clever tricks on the part of the usually-pedestrian Filmation to achieve visual effects way beyond the norm for 1979. They took models, painted black with white lines, ran them on wires while shooting on high-contrast film, then inverted the image to get black lines, skipping the pencil and xerography steps and being ready for painting. You can see the results, along with a hell of a lot of rotoscoping, in the opening credits.
Clearly, this project was a labor of love, and it shows. The first four episodes, cut down from the movie, are all you need to watch, as the rest of the first season really doesn’t go anywhere, and the second is dragged down by wretched changes requested by NBC, such as saddling the show with a cute mascot-type character. It’s also a sign of the times that NBC hated the show’s serial nature, as it prevented them from rerunning more popular episodes more frequently — remember, this was a Saturday morning cartoon, meaning they generally made 13 a year and re-ran them four times a year already.
The problem with a serial story at that time was that they didn’t have the creative freedom — or the faith in their audience — to have the story make permanent changes. They couldn’t alter the basic premise of the show, kill off main characters, or even have anyone learn a lesson important enough to matter the next week. Or, most importantly, end. It may have been good work at its time, and underappreciated then and now, but it pales to contemporary work from overseas. After all, in 1979, Doctor Who was in its salad days with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, wryly explaining to Romana atop the Eiffel Tower (in “City of Death”) that in the vintages of years, 1979 is “more of a table wine.” Blake’s 7 was putting the “anti” in “anti- Star Trek” with a fine, polished cynicism. And anime saw its biggest franchise launch in the form of Mobile Suit Gundam. Scenes like the famous Ghiren’s “Hail Zeon” speech, in which we see the reactions of a number of characters to a neo-fascist using his brother’s funeral as rallying cry to war, show a complexity, a nerve, and a desire for relevance that American television was nowhere close to in 1979.
After all, in that year, US prime time had the robot dog and “Hardy Boys in space” drivel that was the original Battlestar Galactica.
See how much better things can be when you take your premise seriously? And it only took us 30 years to catch up.