SPEED RACER Postmortem: Is Anne Thompson Right?

There is an old maxim that goes: “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”.

This year’s cinematic orphan has to be Speed Racer. The film, which cost an estimated $120 million to produce, has made just over $80 million worldwide in six weeks of release. It looks unlikely that it will recoup its budget and if it does, it will just barely.

Variety columnist Anne Thompson is acting as a one woman child services to try and find this failure’s parents. She has recently published a column listing the ten reasons why Speed Racer sputtered.

As with any lists of this type, some of Thompson’s logic has merit, some of it doesn’t, and well, some of her logic doesn’t make sense. We here at FilmBuff Online will go through her arguments, supporting some of her points and airing our disagreements with others. Because, even though Thompson is presenting her top ten list as fact, unless she interviewed every single person who didn’t see the movie, her reasons are up for debate.

And, in honor of Speed Racer‘s automobile theme (and one of FilmBuff Online’s favorite British journalists), we will be giving Green Lights to points we think are correct, Yellow Lights to points we think have some merit, and Red Lights to those we think Thompson is off base on.

1. “Speed” was simply too costly to score a hit with its target audience.

The logic behind this argument is that there is not a lot of money behind kid flicks. Well, the grosses for Kung Fu Panda ($164 million worldwide and counting), Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian ($233 million worldwide and counting), and Horton Hears a Who ($293 million worldwide and counting) beg to differ. Family friendly flicks can make money at the box office, and the above grosses say that Speed Racer’s $120 million budget isn’t too high to be recouped from the family audience. So this argument is flawed. Red Light.

2. Producer Joel Silver is on a three-year losing streak.

I do not deny that Silver has produced a disappointing slate of movies in the past three years. How much this effects people coming to see his films, I really can’t say. I doubt the casual moviegoer would know Joel Silver from the Silver Surfer. However, this might be more calling his eye for films to produce into question, and that issue might have merit. Yellow Light.

3. Franchise fever.

Thompson’s reasoning is that Warner’s was so desperate for another franchise, that they threw too much money at this project, hoping for a string of Speed Racer movies in the years to come.

This might hold water if Warner’s didn’t have a boatload of franchises in its catalog already (you think Mel Gibson couldn’t be convinced to do another Lethal Weapon?). And, let us not forget that Warner is the parent company of the potential franchise factory that is DC Comics. All they need to do is follow the template laid down by Marvel and they could have loads of franchises to support them for decades to come. Red Light.

4. Brand confusion.

Thompson claims that the audience for the Wachowski’s, who are known for R-rated fare such as Bound and The Matrix, aren’t willing to accept them doing family friendly fare. To that I say that Ron Howard has gone from Ransom to How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rob Reiner went from This Is Spinal Tap to The Princess Bride. So a successful trip from R-rated films to PG-rated films is not unheard of, if marketed correctly. Red Light.

5. Marketing Misdirection.

The idea is that Warner marketing to adults as an intense action film to fans of the Wachowski’s stood at odds with their marketing it to parents and kids as a family film. I agree. It caused confusion in both audiences. The result? Both stayed away. Green Light.

6. Pixel fatigue.

I’m not really sure what Thompson is getting at here, but the gist is that the bright and bouncy CGI might have turned people away. I have to say that in a sense this is true. My wife suffers from a form of motion sickness and can’t watch anything shot with a hand cam. The bright colors and blurred action in the trailer told her that this film wasn’t for her. Green Light.

7. The pic’s soda-pop look might have worked better with older smarthouse audiences.

So, what Thompson is saying that the kid friendly audience is too small to support a blockbuster, but the arthouse, oh, excuse me, “smarthouse” audience isn’t? Really? Red Light.

8. The running time was simply too long for a family film.

Simply put, the longer a movie is, the less showings theaters can fit in in one day. Less showings mean less income, especially in the first weekend before word of mouth hits. Add to that the short attention span many kids have, and that can equal less than stellar box office. Green Light.

9. The movie didn’t work anywhere in the world.

If by this, Thompson means that people didn’t like it, she might be on to something. She continually points out that the movie tested well, but it was lambasted by the critics. Green Light.

10. The movie was ahead of its time.

The people who did like the film, like FilmBuff Online head honcho Rich Drees and comic book writer Peter David compare it to Blade Runner, a movie that was under appreciated in its time but grew to become a fan favorite. This certainly is possible. Green Light.

In summation, the failure of Speed Racer could be summed up in a combination of all of these reasons or for a totally different reason all together. Or, it could be simply that audiences didn’t like it. But this could end up being a case of an orphan whose parents are never found.

Avatar für William Gatevackes
About William Gatevackes 1983 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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June 18, 2008 12:13 pm

Great critique. I too was wondering what she was thinking with those points. The only things I would add are that it suffered from having more general interest, better known competition and that motion sickness sufferers certainly stayed away, but probably shouldn’t have. The complete lack of anything resembling hand cam makes this one a lot easier to watch than most action movies–or so I’m told by people sensitive to that sort of thing.

Rich D
Rich D
June 18, 2008 2:28 pm

Nice analysis Bill. Though, I would disagree with you on point 8, perhaps personally giving it a yellow light status. Saying that the film is too long for a family film ignores the fact that the HARRY POTTEWR movies all clock in at well over two hours and they seem to be doing well at the box office. Of course, I grant that POTTER may be an exception and that its audience is not strictly the family film audience. Also, anecdotally, I saw SPEED RACER the Saturday it opened. There were loads of kids in the audience and at least… Read more »