Beginning in 2003, Lions Gate released episodes of Speed Racer on five DVDs. The later sets each came with a collectible item.
Lionsgate has repackaged their previous individual Speed Racer releases for Speed Racer - The Complete Classic Collection, featuring all 52 episodes of the iconic 1960s Japanese/American anime, housed in a collectible tin shaped like Speed's own beloved Mach 5 racer. With the episodes carried over onto five discs, a sixth disc is included, featuring a few minor bonus extras (which would seem to be the only consideration for double-dipping here). Fans who don't already have the complete series on disc (which seems doubtful) have a nice alternative here in this one-stop, ready-to-go set.
Certainly my connection with the original classic Speed Racer program is no different than millions of other guys from my generation who have particularly fond memories of this action-packed cartoon. Like everyone else, I caught the series in syndication in the early seventies. Watching Speed Racer was like watching a mini-James Bond film, made especially for kids, with nothing like plots, dialogue, or complicated character motivations to get in the way of all the car chases and explosions. Speed Racer moved, man, and it didn't look like anything out there at the time.
Watching it today, I wondered how it was going to hold up; I'm sure I hadn't seen it in twenty years or more. Of course, the first thing that grabbed me was the visual design of the cartoon. Looking like nothing else animated back in the late 60s, Speed Racer, with its extreme, off-center close-ups, whip-pans, and vertiginous racing effects, resembles a comic book (as kids we had no idea of its manga origins) version of the Cinerama epic Grand Prix (which had premiered a year before Mach GoGoGo was produced, and which had many of same kinds of extreme racing visuals) - if it was directed by say, Sergio Leone, with his massive, weird close-ups. For a cheaply produced, limited animation, full-screen cartoon, there's a true sense of scope and scale to the action here, something that still impresses today, despite the budgetary limitations. The action, as well, is more pronounced than even some big-screen thrillers from that time period (you'll find more explosions and car wrecks in one half-hour episode here, than in all four of Dean Martin's Matt Helm spy films). What I found particularly gratifying was the dark, determined nature of the violence, as well. Cars go over cliffs in each and every episode...and for the most part, the drivers don't climb back up (like the Coyote every time he's pounded in those Roadrunner Looney Tunes). They're obviously dead (show me another cartoon from this period that gleefully shows a guy getting stripped to the bone by ravenous piranha???).
And that finality adds weight to the often-times dark stories that involve greed, revenge, guilt and plain old murderous intent. That hyper-realism, mixed with the stories' frequent use of surreal, outsized, fantastical, supernatural threats and villains, creates a delightfully bizarre world that still packs a semiological punch today. Character motivations, alongside the eye-popping action, are equally important to Speed Racer's success. What little kid doesn't respond on a deeply submerged level to Speed's constant need to prove himself capable in an adult world? His drive to master the physical world around him (through the Mach 5)? His desire to prove himself worthy of a parent and (absent) brother he idolizes? That's Speed Racer's hook
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for Speed Racer - The Complete Classic Collection look about the same as I remember them on TV, years ago. Certainly, quite a bit of the screen anomalies that show up originated in the animation process (which was hurried, on the low budget). But it's also apparent that Lionsgate (which doesn't have the best reputation for the quality of its transfers) hasn't done anything to clean these up. Colors are muted, the picture can be soft at times, and interlacing is a factor. Still, these will look fine to a little kid, who won't care if the colors are occasionally fuzzy.
The Audio:The original mono track has been split into a Dolby Digital mix, with an appropriate, but not outstanding, level of loudness. Hiss is a minor factor, but the dialogue is clear, at least. Close-captions are available.
The Extras:First, there are no original Japanese audio tracks here - just the original English dubs. The discs are housed in a compact disc holder-sized, stiff-board booklet, with cardboard slip holders for the discs (the episodes are listed on the holders). The booklet fits into the special metal case that's shaped like the Mach 5. It measures 10" long, by 6" wide, by 2" thick. It's split (like a candy tin). I can't say it did much for me; it wouldn't fit on my regular DVD shelves, so I would imagine the cardboard booklet will be taken out, and the tin stored.
Bonuses on the discs are a bit thin. On the first disc, the Speed Racer Files, broken down into sections "Production," "Mach 5," Villain's Gallery," and "Speed Lives On!" contain text info on these various themes, along with accessible clips and audio (The "Mach 5" is probably the best one, where you can select all the car's gizmos for inspection). On disc 2, there are buttons in the menu that lead you to clips and text about various villains and other themes in the show. The sixth disc contains a 10-minute documentary on the production of the original show, featuring interviews with Peter Fernandez, James Rocknowski of Speed Racer Enterprises, and Ben Gruber, Larry Schwartz, and David McGrath, of the remake cartoon. It's a pretty thin documentary, considering the importance of the show in American (and world) pop culture. There's also a 10-minute featurette on the remake cartoon, as well as a sample episode - both dreary beyond words. Considering the fan base of this cartoon, and taking into account that quite a few fans probably already have the individual releases, someone dropped the ball in trying to convince viewers to double-dip on this collector's edition, when the extras are so skimpy.
Watching the classic anime/cartoon Speed Racer, I was initially amused at how Speed made the Mach 5 perform all those physically impossible stunts...and then it occurred to me: that's just how little boys play with their toy cars. Remember? We used to take them, and make them fly in the air, and climb straight up a chair, and do ridiculous flips and turns and smash-ups, all the while making revving and skidding and explosions noises, over and over again. That's the appeal of Speed Racer, and it's impossible not to get caught up in its bizarre world of hyper-realism and surreal, outsized, supernatural fantasy. It's a combination that's just as potent today as it was forty-plus years ago. Even though this special collector's edition is thin on the extras, it does give you the entire classic series in one fell swoop, presented in probably the best shape it's ever going to be on DVD. I highly recommend Speed Racer - The Complete Classic Collection.