There have been many film adaptations of source material that have taken on a completely different tone and form than it’s original predecessor. The campy and action packed procedural ‘Charlie’s Angels’, was adapted into film as an action comedy, with the main leads being a lot more self deprecating than the originals. When it comes to live action remakes of animated source material, it becomes that much more difficult to properly adapt all the elements of a cartoon world, into the real world. One example is the live action remake of the popular cartoon character, ‘Scooby Doo’, also was adapted as a campy and quirky mystery comedy movies. In this case, concepts such as anthropomorphic animals, being able to talk and have adventures, which rely on out of this world feats perpetuated by people that are incredibly incapable of doing so, are but just a few aspects of those universes that don’t properly translate into real world physics. This is even more true when it comes to a particular film, adapted from a Japanese Cartoon in the 60’s, the premise of which involved outrageous and gravity defying car racing.
Speed Racer was originally a carton about a boy obsessed with automobile racing, ‘Speed Racer’ the show, was fun, exciting and had a naive sense of idealism that appealed to kids everywhere. The main character of Speed himself was simple without being corny; a hero without showing any over heroics other than his courage to put others first and himself on the line every time he steps behind the wheel of a car. The adventures of Speed and his entire entourage of cheerful characters and family, furthered the elements of fun that kids related to originally. Adapting this high flying car racing adventure cartoon into a live action film was no easy task. This difficulty is further exasperated when the source material is an animated work of fiction. The only filmmakers up to the task, unsurprisingly ended up being a pair of filmmakers as quirky and eccentric as the subject matter they decided to take on. The minds behind ‘The Matrix’ Trilogy, decided to take on a cartoon about incredible stunt racing and, using the most advanced technology and an innovative vision, adapted it into a live action movie that combined the best of both worlds and effectively brought ‘Speed Racer’ into reality.
Speed Racer tells the story of a young man named Speed, (Emil Hirche) who has a passion for racing, inherited from his father, (John Goodman) a car designer, and his elder brother, a racer himself. Politics within the commercialized racing world causes the brother Rex to leave the family and join the underworld of racing, only to have his legacy be ruined through accusations of corruption and cheating. With a huge chip on his shoulder, Speed needs to reclaim his family legacy, and be a legendary racer himself, all the while the memories of his brother haunt him. Beckoning comparisons to his brother, Speed grows up to be talented racer. When an opportunity comes his way to become a professional racer, courted by the best sponsors in the world, Speed and his family are exposed to the bitter and harsh truth of the world of competitive racing. The movie follows Speed as he needs to shake off his disillusionment and pursue his dreams, clear his family name and try to change the industry from the inside out. Despite being based on a cartoon, the movie has great themes of family, brotherhood, capitalism finding its way into organized sports, and the corruption within it all. All concepts that may see relatively too complicated for a kids cartoon, however, the writers do a brilliant job with providing simple enough explanations for any child to understand, not just to follow the story, but even generally in life.
The How: Cartoon Into Reality
The most successful ways of adapting an animated feature into live action, have been to completely ignore the animated elements of the material, and just adapt into a straight forward live action format. The outrageously ‘cartoony’ elements are replaced with more grounded realistic visuals, while the story is modified to be more in tune with a formula for the specific genre, be it comedic or action. The other, more obvious method of adapting an animated movie into live action, is simply to upgrade the animation and essentially do a more 3 dimensional computer animated film, such as the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movies have done for years, prior to its live action adaptation by Michael Bay. The Wachoswkis however, decided to incorporate the best of both worlds; the visuals of an animated movie, with real life actors in a live action adaptation. The result is a brilliant mash up of the unrealistically real, and a fun experience for all ages with unique visuals and a one of a kind type of storytelling. Blending live action actors into an unreal world, The Wachowskis set everyone against a green screen backdrop, and created the entire universe of ‘Speed Racer’ through computer generated effects. The effects were subtle enough to replicate a family’s house, to a fully automated car factory with lots of moving parts and other outrageous elements.
The Wham! Bam! Action Of It All
If the simple act of putting real life actors in front of green screen environments was all the Wachowskis did, then Speed Racer would basically be a modern day progression of ‘Space Jam’, which did the same but with two dimensional animated cartoon characters. The Wachowskis however, go a step further, by allowing the actors, to interact with the computer generated backgrounds, and use innovative techniques to highlight the action of the film. A fight scene near the end of the movie, involved the Wachowskis using unique camera work to take the audience right into the heart of things while creating visuals that felt truly like an animated movie. The action choreography was far fetched, silly and incredibly unrealistic, but the scenery and manner in which the perspective flowed through all the characters in the massive free for all, was something that could not be achieved in a fully live action film at the time, thereby retaining the original and child-like appeal of the original show, within the adaptation. It was a way for the Directors to bring some of the high handed elements of an animated story, into live action through the use of blending the CGI technology and classic film making techniques to create a scene that felt uniquely cartoonish, but in a very real way. This effect is heightened even more for all the racing scenes, which is all CGI cars racing against each other, with very real actors in the drivers’ seats. The hardest thing to coordinate in those sequences must have been having the actors all know their visual cues, and reacting and emoting to changes in the action within the story, without actually having them happen until the CGI was added in post production. It’s a credit to the Directors’ sense of organization that kept the actors aware of where and how the effects will be added, for them to be able to do their job in a satisfying manner.
Retaining The Innocence Of A Cartoon, Without Being Cheesy
The world created by the Wachoswkis in ‘Speed Racer’ isn’t dark or gritty, despite the high flying action, explosion and car stunts. The brightness of the Racer’s family’s house is matched only by their demeanour and insistence to stay a family, despite all they’ve been through. The dialogue, while being idealistic and naive, suits the characterization of Speed, as well as the parents, portrayed with brilliance by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon. The story harkens to the simplicity and one dimensional depiction of good and bad of the cartoon, while still creating layers for things to be more than what they seem. In a way, the simplistic characters having to deal with concepts so complex, mirrors the way a young audience would need to come to grips with similar concepts as they watch the movie. Emil Hirsche plays Speed with an eager honesty that adds to his delivery of the dialogue, and makes the character truly earnest. ‘Speed Racer’ is a film devoid of any cynicism, but needs to be experienced with an understanding for passion and interest in something that one loves to do. It’s a movie that, while being for all ages, will remind adults of the appeal of pursuing one’s passion. The Wachowskis infuse just the right amount of passionate enthusiasm within every area of the film; from the set pieces, to the characters, to their stunts. The film is meant to invoke and recall the audience’s experiences of nostalgia as well as opening them up to a story about family, perseverance and the good natured thrill of an adventure. Despite not breaking box-office records, ’Speed Racer’ went on to become a cult hit and a fan favourite for its unique visuals and a story that treads the line between unrealistically idealistic and just plain adventurous.