18-year-old Speed Racer competes in a wide variety of auto races, though he's not above setting that aside to help a lady in trouble, or bust a criminal conspiracy or two.
I was going to wake Grampa for a comment- since this originally debuted when HE was a kid- but he's asleep now. I'll try to get him on record later.
But let's face it: you've SEEN this. You KNOW you have. Your denials will NOT be believed.
In the years between Astro Boy and the "boom" of the early 1990s there were a few shows in the genre that were run (invariably dubbed) on U.S. TV, but I think Speed Racer got MUCH more airtime than most; it seemed like it got endlessly repeated on some channels during the "children's hours" (ca. 4-6 PM.) I know Kimba the White Lion got some air time, but it never turned up on a channel I watched; I didn't get to see (and review) the French-Japanese The Mysterious Cities of Gold until the last few years. But Speed Racer? You couldn't even get a quarter-way round the channel knob without getting run over by the Mach 5.
There are a couple of first principles to consider with Speed Racer. The first is that it's basically an early '60s comic book for 10-12 year old boys (the show debuted in 1967.) The show is very much a formula action-adventure show, exactly the way kid's comic books were in those days. While it completes a few of its stories in a single episode, most of the stories spanned two, or even three episodes, and- very subjectively- I think the single-episode stories here are usually weaker than the multipart ones. (With a few notable exceptions, including "The Trick Race", which I'll mention again before I'm through.)
The second general observation about Speed Racer is that its plots were so ludicrous as to seem demented to a more "sophisticated" audience ("Sophisticated" is in quotes to exclude fans of any modern genre that the reader finds offensive or ridiculous; it's left to the reader to decide what those genres are- I'm just trying to stay out of trouble here.) It plays pretty much as camp today, but it's (usually) an innocent, FUN kind of camp, rather than the I'm-actually-above-all-this, self-conscious, condescending, artificial camp that one often sees today. The folks who worked on the show knew it was absurd, and rolled with that; they gave it more a gentle ribbing than a drubbing. So- and remember, I'm basing all this on the dub- let's dig into the details:
-Speed Racer is set in a world that somewhat resembles ours (with a few bizarre differences), and its political incorrectness is authentic to the period. The bottom of the barrel might be an episode where the show wanted to do "cowboys and Indians", so it has "Motorcycle Apaches" attacking government convoys. (The Apaches are apparently pretty well-heeled, having jet fighters as well.) At the end of the show, Speed chides the "selfishness" of these Native Americans, unwilling to "give up a small amount of their land for world peace." Uh, NO, because (1) even for public use, compensation is normally required to those who have to give up land; (2) in the REAL world, it was not a SMALL amount of land, it was ANY, and ALL, land, that farmers and ranchers wanted, and, again, was simply taken, WITHOUT compensation to the Native Americans (or right of refusal, for that matter); and (3) I have no idea what "uraniumtane" is (the stuff that's being shipped in the episode), but it sure doesn't SOUND peaceful.
-The same remarks apply to the show's lack of any feminist sensibility. If Speed's girlfriend Trixie has any family, or indeed any private thoughts, interests, or LIFE apart from Speed, you'll never see it. Her existence is defined by Her Man (as it WAS on TV in those days), and is confined to the roles of (1) adviser against some of Her Guy's more boneheaded decisions (we'll look at this next), (2) cheerleader for Speed, and (3) being consumed with jealousy when Her Guy rescues some damsel in distress (Speed does that a lot.) Speed's mom gets even less opportunity to express herself. At one point Pops (Speed's father) and Speed are discussing "Speed's older brother Rex who ran away from home years ago" (you'll inevitably memorize this quote, it will show up a lot in the show), and Speed's mom, who's sitting nearby, says nary a word nor sheds nary a tear even though her firstborn is being discussed here.
-Speed is...uh, rather easily distracted. He'll do reckless things if his pride is involved, but he'll ALSO do reckless things for altruistic reasons. In fact, THAT'S THE MAJOR SOURCE OF SERIES PLOTS- he's always trying to defend the Damsel in Distress, or defeat some group of assassins or random megalomaniacs, or whatnot, quests which often occur just before, or in the middle of, important races, and might take hours or (apparently) a day or two to resolve. In the earlier episodes of the series he nevertheless usually resumed the race, and somehow won it, which made me think the Mach 5 must not only be fast, but actually faster than light, permitting travel to the past. Later in the series, when he's delayed like this he tends to the more realistic attitude of oh well, there will be another race.
-Speed has a little brother named Spritle, who's paired with a chimpanzee rather unimaginatively named Chim-Chim. They are usually decked out in identical red outfits, with caps with red-and-white concentric circles that must be terrific targets for birds, but the show never goes there, even though it would have been funnier than the weak slapstick this duo is typically used for. (On the other hand, Spritle DOES have my favorite line in the whole series: in one episode, a bad guy has him tied up. Spritle says, "Let me go, and I won't do anything I'm not supposed to do." Bad guy lets him go, and then Spritle whacks him with a wrench, saying "I HAD to do that, so I kept my word!") Spritle is seen several times driving motor vehicles, albeit ones scaled down to his size. (He's only 7 years old, by the way.) He also seems to be very good at beating up the burliest of bad guys. It helps that the bad guys are TERRIBLE shots, apparently unable to hit ANY of our heroes even with automatic weapons at near point-blank range.
-Pops Racer's philosophy on designing the Mach 5 seems to have eschewed the usual attempts to keep a racing car lightweight, in favor of loading it up with all kinds of gadgets and features that one would normally NEVER need in an auto race. The car is bulletproof (though one episode forgot this), can operate underwater (how the engine manages without a snorkel I have no idea), has a "homing robot" (hey, an early drone!), and has a pair of ridiculously large sawblades capable of taking down an entire forest. (A couple of features weren't quite so ridiculous- the "grip tires" for extra traction, and maybe even the automatic jacks, though Speed usually used these not for the original purpose of raising the car for service without a lift or hoist, but instead used them to make the car JUMP, and once, memorably, as a kind of emergency brake. If they were going to equip the car with EVERYTHING, I think a more practical suggestion might have been a winch, given the sort of situations Speed got himself into. Don't know where they would have put the button tho.)
-The dub only has three voice actors. The woman in the cast seems to speak for both Trixie and Spritle (and for Mom Racer, though she has hardly any lines AT ALL.) When we have a large group of characters in an episode, the three VAs naturally run out of variations they can do on their own voices.
-The most remarkable thing about this show- or the dub, anyway- is the names. Both in popular culture (Dick Tracy) and "serious" literature (Dickens) one finds the practice of giving characters names that are more or less descriptive of their personalities, but Speed Racer makes almost an art of this: we've an evil Arab named Ali ben Schemer, a gangster named Dante Ferno, another named Greed Scrounge. Relatively good characters get this treatment too- one racer is named Hap Hazard; and there's also the show's frequently-appearing sleuth, Inspector Detector (who has my SECOND favorite line in the series, declaring about a villain "He's disreputable, and dishonest, and not much good.") Gangsters in Speed Racer look like caricatures of gangsters, right down to the dark suits, dark fedoras, and sunglasses.
-And then there's Speed's "older brother Rex who left home years ago." There IS an emotional heart to the show, no matter how silly it gets, in the protectiveness Rex (always in disguise as "Racer X") exhibits toward Speed. Speed is not the sharpest knife in the drawer- well, I was going to say "on this issue", but he's not that sharp on a LOT of issues- but even HE begins to get suspicious about Racer X's frequent interventions to help him. Racer X is also a spy for a police organization, and since Speed's altruism tends to get him mixed up with bad guys all the time anyway, they end up teaming up together quite a bit, especially in the later episodes of the show. In my opinion, the climax of the series is not the two-parter that actually ends it, but the episode called "The Trick Race", which comes the closest the show ever gets to closure on the brothers.
-Individual stuff I liked, or at least found interesting, that I haven't mentioned: the show did create memorable sort-of-villains with the Car Acrobatic Team, who have apparently successfully repealed the laws of physics AND are led by a guy named Captain Terror, who has no lips at all. And for years I was actually haunted by the episode featuring the GRX, which starts in a graveyard, and later ends up with a terrified character who has to be "deprogrammed" (or perhaps it's "reprogrammed" here?) in order to function at all. Of course the show's theme song is memorable- TOO memorable... (It's become an "earworm" that it may take my mind some time to set aside again.)
I'd like to get some comments from Grampa to end this review. Grampa, do you have anything to say about this show?
Go, Speed Racer, Go!
Well, I guess that says it all.
INCREDIBLY silly, but still kind of fun; and like the comic books it emulates, it's fast-paced. You have to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy the show, but viewing it again after all these years I still could do that. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Mild violence. Unrated; Right Stuf age rating All.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD.
Review Status: Full (52/52)
Speed Racer © 1967 Tatsunoko Productions.
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