by Amanda Barwick
The character depictions of Rex, Speed, and Spritle in Speed Racer (2008) demonstrate a range of how children can be empowered within their own environments and understanding. The aesthetic, technology, and depiction of the family in the film allow Speed, the representation of the empowered child, to exert control over his situation and express himself through his own strengths.
The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) is a strange mixture of unusual filmmakers and an even stranger concept—to turn the 1960s Japanese-American cartoon Speed Racer into a feature-length family film. The Wachowskis’ previous films include The Matrix (1999) and V for Vendetta (2005), which hail far from the “kid-friendly” genre, but their distinct style and approach brings something unique to this admittedly over-charged, over-colored children’s cartoon. The opening race of both Rex and Speed at Thunderhead establishes all the pressures and problems Speed has to overcome—bad performance at school, fatherly expectations, the soiled reputation of an older brother, a death in an otherwise tight-knit family—and the only tool Speed has to deal with these problems is racing. Despite the seeming incompatibility of racing as a solution to these personal, familial, and social issues, Speed is able to overcome these problems through racing. In both the context of the film’s creation and the text itself, Speed Racer empowers children within the scope of their own environments, roles, and abilities through its use of aesthetics, its use of technology, and its representation of family.
Speed is the representation of the child in the film, even as his age seems to lean toward young adult. He still lives with his parents in their home, and has yet to define himself as independent. He is the avatar, the character through which the audience vicariously experiences the story, so it’s with his character that children identify as they watch the film. Even though he has a younger brother, Spritle, who age-wise is more childlike, because of Speed’s position within the family, he is the stand-in for child viewers and their struggles.
The design and storytelling of the film take on the perspective of Speed—the child—favoring deep focus, bright colors, and cut-and-paste composition in order to create a feeling of comic book illustration. These features provide many points for the audience to focus on at once, such as when Royalton gives the Racer family a tour of Royalton Industries. The reactions of the family, the various drivers in training, and Royalton are all entering and exiting the frame at different times. This incorporation of multiple focal points reflects the short attention span of children, especially those with attention-deficit disorders—like Speed has himself. In this film, a literal visual reality is less important than a depiction that expresses a child’s inner reality of a short attention span, a child’s energy level, and a child’s sensory learning process. From a design standpoint, the child’s perspective is celebrated, empowering children by taking on a child’s viewpoint and understanding of the world.
The film also takes on children’s inability to recognize the creative walls between different medias and mediums, incorporating several intertextual pop culture references into its storytelling. During Royalton’s tour, we see a driver scuba diving and collecting fish while walking along a flat tank—a direct homage to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong games.
Racer X’s attack on Cruncher Block’s semi-truck depicts two major ways that children are exposured to violence—video games and action films. When the semi-truck and racecar start a high-speed shoot out, the film turns to the aesthetic of James Bond and first-person shooters to shape its depiction. Using a joystick and a video screen, guns and missiles are aimed, and happy arcade sounds cue when the shot is lined up. When the men inside the truck fly through the air, dodging bullets and explosions, the action goes into slow motion, and the coloring turns to the blue and red silhouettes of classic James Bond films.
In fact, the James Bond film Goldfinger was an inspiration for the creator, Tatsuo Yoshida when he created the original Speed Racer television show. Thus, this scene plays with multiple layers of intertextuality. Speaking of the television show, there is even a scene in the Speed Racer film in which Spritle and Chim Chim imagine that they enter the anime they’re watching, a direct nod to the film’s Japanese and anime roots. The easy incorporation of and flow between different genres, styles, and texts reflects a child’s multitextual learning, mirroring how a child processes different aspects of reality and synthesizes them into a single understanding.
Speed’s skill as a driver also reflects a child’s perspective and representation of the modern child’s relationship to technology. His driving skills are deeply connected to the technology surrounding him, especially with his car. In the same year Speed Racer was released, Iron Man also premiered, featuring a man who fuses to a machine that enhances his abilities and that keeps him alive. Speed Racer is similarly dependent on his machine to enable him to make a difference and express himself. Critic Richard Corliss compares the two movies, stating, “we live in an age of sophisticated machines . . . so let’s recognize our symbiosis with machines—and celebrate our mastery of them” (Corliss). Rather than another critique of technology controlling its users, Speed Racer is an example of beneficial, intrinsic technology. Speed is quiet and powerless until he gets behind the wheel of his T180. Instead of enslaving him— his time, attention, and life—technology liberates Speed and allows him to take charge of his life: “When I’m in a T180, I don’t know. Everything just makes sense.” In parallel, modern children are being raised with technology—computers, internet, smart phones, tablets, etc.—a fact that is accepted and even exemplified as child empowerment in Speed Racer.
The Wachowskis’ relationship with technology also reflects the principles of acceptance and symbiosis. “Machines are tools that free the creative spirit of the director and the effects mavens. . . [and] that’s certainly true of Speed Racer, in which the texture is the text, and it’s deliriously dense” (Corliss). The Wachowskis blend together live acting and almost completely fabricated environments, using green screen to its fullest extent. This use of post-production filling and computer-integrated filmmaking channels a child’s creativity and reliance on imagination to embellish a child’s reality. The dependency upon computer graphics technology is also a testament to the strength of the script and the vision of the directors, as well as the talent of the actors who were able to interact flawlessly with an environment that they couldn’t see. The scope of the virtual movie is matured in Speed Racer, and the computer-generated, visual effects technology allows filmmakers the freedom to play with color, depth of field, and composition —with a child-like wonder.
Technology also operates within the film narrative itself; Speed’s racecars are more than just gears, pedals, and a steering wheel. His dashboard is filled with buttons, switches, joysticks, and pedals that control various driving and defensive mechanisms. Especially during the Casa Cristo sequence, Speed’s driving resembles playing a video game as much as it does driving a traditional car. His steering wheel has buttons with letters on them, just as a gaming controller has.
We even get an explanation of the controls like one you would find in a game tutorial: “The ‘A’ button will operate your normal jump jacks, ‘B’ will seal your cockpit. . . the ‘C’ button will activate your tire shields” and so on all the way to button ‘G’. The more fantastic maneuvers Speed does with his car are the result of a push of one of these buttons rather than the turn of the wheel. This resemblance to video games empowers children through their increasingly ingrained relationship to technology and legitimizes their interactions with it. Scholar Jon Katz argues that “children are at the epicenter of the information revolution, ground zero of the digital world” and “more than anything else, children need to have their culture affirmed” (Jenkins). By empowering Speed through a technology that seamlessly incorporates the culture of gaming, Speed Racer legitimizes a child’s relationship to technology that is so often criticized by the older generation of parents, teachers, and leaders—adults who during their own childhoods interacted significantly less with technology.
Another aspect of Speed’s driving that resembles a video game is the “race” with his brother for the track record at Thunderhead at the very beginning of the film. With Speed ahead of the pack by a sizable margin, Speed’s mechanic Sparky remarks, “Holy cannoli, Speed! Do you know who you’re racing?” Just then, the ghost of Rex’s car appears slightly ahead of Speed’s car.
Racing ghost cars of past races is a common feature in racing video games; this feature serves as a visual marker for improving one’s time on a course. However, the ghost of Rex’s past becomes more than a film technique for the audience’s understanding, as Speed looks directly at the ghost car near the finish line. Rex’s ghost car is a projection of Speed’s mind, and the fact that the race scene operates like a racing video game reflects the mind of all video game-playing children.
Speed’s connection to his car goes beyond the simple physical pushing of buttons and pedals, as seen in his interactions with the ghost car. Rex teaches him that a car “ain’t no dead piece of metal. A car’s a living, breathing, thing, and she’s alive.” The car becomes an extension of Speed’s mind, body, and purpose, not just an inanimate tool that he uses to achieve his goals. “Steering” and “driving” are two completely different concepts to him—steering is simply turning a wheel, but driving is being completely unified with the car and knowing its every working. As much as Speed uses his car, he also listens to it, showing that children foster symbiotic relationships with their technology. During the climactic Grand Prix race, Speed gets into a tangle that kills his engine. Quieting Sparky’s mechanical babble, Speed simply listens to the car and asks, “What do you need?” By intuition and through his spiritual connection with his car, he miraculously jump-starts the car and flies back into first place.
The technology of Speed Racer empowers Speed, the representative of the child, by enhancing his skills as a child and as a driver. His intimate connection with his car and the complete integration of technology with the film’s story, design, and creation reflects the experience of the modern, digital-age child. MIT professor Henry Jenkins argues that children are active participants in media and technology, not passive victims. We must “recogniz[e] and respect [children’s] existing investment, skills, and knowledge as media users” (Jenkins). “The goal is not to erase the line between children and adult, which we must observe if we are both to protect and empower the young”; the goal is to respect their position and knowledge within their own sphere and empower them to affect change and direct their lives for the better within that position (“The Innocent Child”).
The Wachowskis incorporate empowering the child into the very design of the film with the color, comic book appearance, and use of technology—which in turn affects the Wachowskis’ depiction of the characters, especially that of Speed Racer. Speed represents the position of the child within the family and the larger social/political sphere, and his relationship with his family and technology empower him within that position. From the very opening scene of him tapping his foot in the locker room, we see that Speed has an excess of energy. Almost immediately we are thrown back into Speed’s elementary school classroom where he is struggling with a test, foot tapping away. His wandering attention in the classroom contrast his intense focus on the high-energy sport of racing, making him a symbol for the millions of children in the U.S. that have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Rather than being crippled by his disability, Speed is able to succeed in areas outside the classroom and becomes the world’s best racecar driver, exposing the underworld of race fixing in the process.
Speed’s empowerment stands out in contrast to that of his brother Rex, who also tries to fight against the race fixers but with drastically different consequences. Rex is an example of the failure to empower children within own circumstances, as he is forced to take on the race-fixers without the support of his family. The parting exchange between Rex and Pops haunts the rest of the film and molds Pops’s relationship with Speed:
“Pops: So you’re quitting.
Rex: I have to.
Pops: No you don’t. This is a choice. You’re selling out. Turning your back on everything we’ve built here.
Rex: I’m done arguing with you, Pops.
Pops: Don’t you turn your back on me.
Rex: You can’t tell me what to do. It’s my life to live.
Pops: You walk out that door now you better not ever come back.”
Rex was forced out of his role as a child and had to take on the role of an adult because of this separation from his family. Because of his removal from his familial position of child, he is forced to fake his death and create a new identity. Though Speed goes through the same disillusionment with racing and tries to stop the fixing just as Rex did, he stays within his family and keeps his name, succeeding where Rex couldn’t. Speed and Rex’s storylines have direct parallels; Speed even repeats many of the same lines and actions of Rex from earlier in the film. The crucial difference is Pops’s response to Speed leaving home. Unlike with Rex, Pops assures Speed that his “door is always open. You can always come back. ’Cause I love you.” Speed retains his position as a child in his home, but is empowered to follow his own judgment and continues to draw upon the strength of his family.
Where Rex is an example of removing a child from his or her own environment and understanding, Spritle is an example of failing to recognize a child’s abilities and influence. Although Spritle is technically the child of the family, he is little more than a human replica of his chimpanzee companion, Chim Chim. He’s precocious and provides humorous comic relief, but does little to shape the film’s plot. Where Speed represents the empowered child, Spritle stands in for the stereotypical restriction of children—bedtimes, media control, and an aversion to cooties and girls. Even though Spritle discovers the secret production of illegal spear hooks in Royalton Industries, he never shares this information until just before Speed himself exposes it in the final race. Speed’s talents and abilities exert direct influence on his family’s situation and the entire business of racing, where Spritle has little power beyond sneaking out and breaking rules. Speed’s success in contrast to his brothers’ failures and limitations makes the argument that children are the most successful if their position within the family is protected and they are allowed to pursue talents that empower them within that position.
However, if Speed represents a child’s perspective and position, then he also represents the child’s helplessness within the environment of the adult world. Pops points out: “You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn’t work like that!” Pops belittles Speed’s view of the world and power he believes he has. Royalton, the antagonistic force, does this as well, as he attempts to strip Speed’s power from him and disillusion him as to his position as a child. When Speed turns down his sponsorship, Royalton reveals that every race is fixed and that racing has “nothing to do with cars or drivers. All that matters is power, and the unassailable might of money.” He asks Speed if he’s “ready to put away [his] toys and grow up” and “become a real racecar driver,” indicating that Speed’s love of racing is a childish weakness that holds no power. Forces like Royalton’s mega-corporation, the corruption of other drivers, and the trumped-up legal actions against Speed’s father’s business are uncontrollable forces in Speed’s life—that he feels woefully incapable of changing.
However, in reply to Pops’s statement that driving a car won’t change the world, Speed states, “Maybe not, but it’s the only thing I know how to do, and I gotta do something.” Without having to leave his family or “grow up” in the manner that Royalton indicates, Speed does end up changing the racing world and his family’s situation using the skills he already possesses, an example of empowering the child in his own environment. By just using his skills as a racecar driver and leaning on the support of his family, Speed wins the Grand Prix and beats the fixed race, exposing Royalton’s cheating and inspiring his fellow racer, Taejo Togokahn, to testify against Royalton’s crimes in the process.
Given their track record, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer was a strange project that ultimately performed mediocrely at the box office and was, perhaps, about thirty minutes too long for a traditional kid flick. But its representation of children through Rex, Spritle, and most importantly, Speed, empowers children in their own family positions, skills, and relationships with technology, rather than repressing them simply because of their age or forcing them out of their childhood and into an early adulthood. The film is the ultimate blending of man and machine—in both the Wachowskis’ production and the story—speaking to modern children and telling them that they are not weak and helpless; their position as a child and their skills, even if they aren’t academically focused, can give them power to change their world.
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