When it comes to automotive competition, there’re different forms of endurance racing. In the U.S., there’s NASCAR, whereas in Europe, there is Le Mans. But if you really want to push yourself as a driver, there’s the road rally, often comprised of hundreds of miles of roadway (or more) set across multiple days with multiple teams gunning for the trophy. The road rally has been presented in cinema as an all-out no-holds-barred competition. Though the road rallys of today are often much calmer, one can look to films like The Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), Speed Racer (2008), and even Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) to get that high-octane feeling. The latest to seek the gold is writer/director Ross Venokur’s (Charming) Rally Road Racers, an animated adventure that pits good versus evil in a series of increasingly ridiculous automotive situations. Complete with needle drops and jokes that’ll tickle audiences of all ages, Rally Road Racers is a fun time, offering a lesson about uplifting others and caring for one’s community nestled within a silly packaging for a solid 92-minutes.
Zhi (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) dreams of becoming a racer. Though he has the talent, something happens whenever he gets close to finishing and it all falls apart on him. But when famed racer Archie Vainglorious (voiced by John Cleese) sets his sights on Zhi’s village for demolition, the only hope Zhi has to stop it is to beat Vainglorious in the upcoming grueling four-day Silk Road Rally — winner take all.
To describe Rally Road Racers as similar to Speed Racer is not a far-off description given the color palette used throughout both films. It’s animation, sure, and the characters are given wonderful textures and designs so that they look as grounded as possible within the framework of Venokur’s world, but the surrounding colors of buildings, the sky, and even natural elements have a heightened quality of them. Considering that the Silk Road Rally is a race where anything goes, there’s already a sense of danger and possibility, but this is boosted by a complimentary color scheme. It’s not that the presentation implies a certain impossibility, it’s that everything begins to feel other-worldly, exciting, and fun. That this courses throughout the whole of the film allows for some silliness that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. One instance in particular set this ‘80s kid’s heart ablaze as one has no choice but to boogie when it comes on. In this instance, it’s used appropriately to convey the burgeoning affection between Zhi and Chloe Bennet’s (Abominable/Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Shelby, while also taking advantage of some amusing character designs and rally pathways to transform a standard race leg into a propelling character moment.
Where the Fury Road comparison comes in is also where the fun begins and that Cannonball Run screwball comedy comes to full power. It’s not just the race which has no rules, it’s the film itself, establishing quickly that audiences should expect the unexpected. This doesn’t mean there isn’t style or that jokes are made without thoughtful intent. One great shot early in the film uses a shift in perspective to reveal that it’s also a character looking in a rearview, while another is a transition into a long-enough-to-not-get-stale joke for older audiences that also advances the story forward via needledrop accompanied by shifted animation style. Granted, Fury Road didn’t utilize “The Distance” by Cake, but when you add this kind of silly sensibility with racers utilizing segmented cars to allow for centipede-like movement, razorblades to remove the tops of opponents cars, or even taking advantage of a Mach Five-like auto jack system to hop out of danger one is willing to go along for the ride wherever it leads. Even with all of this wildness and silliness, Rally Road Racers never loses the heart at its center, allowing it to entertain with chaos and explore what it means to be a winner for young (or young-at-heart) audiences.
The obvious message for a family film is that winning the trophy isn’t the same as winning over all. There are stakes for Zhi to win, challenging his view of himself as a racer and as a grandson trying to do right by his grandmother (Lisa Lu of Crazy Rich Asians/Lust, Caution) and village, but Venokur also makes sure to highlight that life doesn’t begin and end on the track. Through the storyline with his grandmother, we learn of the concept of Tao, a Buddhist term meaning purpose, thereby putting forth the notion that understanding one’s purpose in life goes beyond the immediate desire but how that purpose shapes and forms one’s entire life. For a young character like Zhi, gold is the endgame as it’s the easiest thing to gauge whether one is a winner or loser. But through the road rally, Zhi (and the audience) comes to understand that when one strives to save the day, it doesn’t necessarily mean winning the race, it can mean being proud of one’s self. Sure, this requires the narrative to spend time with Zhi as he learns to go from self-sabotaging racer to one with greater confidence (an expectation of a story for this audience), but it also allows for an opportunity for a discussion regarding being able to look one’s self in the mirror and being proud of what is seen. In the case of Rally Road Racers, this also just happens to go down surrounded by a litany of ridiculous characters like a team of Italian sea horses (with one pregnant), another team that almost could be mistaken for a certain moose and squirrel duo, and more.
Ultimately, Rally Road Racers is exactly the film you expect it to be from the trailers. It’s a family-friendly adventure with some light messaging regarding finding your purpose and trusting your instincts. The conflicts arise and are resolved with a nice level of maturity, allowing for there to be weight in the narrative but not enough to weigh down the action or slow the momentum. The vocal performances from the central cast Yang, Bennet, Lu, and J.K. Simmons (The Legend of Korra), are enjoyable. Though I suspect it’s going to be Sharon Horgan (Game Night) and Catherine Tate (Doctor Who) as color-commentary hosts who more folks will remember with their silly one-liners and asides during the race. There’s not much in the way of surprises for audiences of any age, but the audience it’s aimed at (children) is going to have a good time thanks to the cleverness in character execution, a couple of fun songs, and the reminder that sometimes in order to go fast, you’ve got to slow down, and in order to win, it’s ok to lose.
In theaters May 12th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Viva Pictures Rally Road Racers webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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