It’s no secret that cartoons are often made for children, or, in the case of anything by Seth MacFarlane, man-children. But such cartoons have still managed to become pop culture icons and the source of many fond memories. Pokemon, TMNT, Transformers, HeMan, and dozens of other series from the childhoods of children throughout the modern television age have lasted in the memories of people like me, who refuse to grow up.
However, it’s a fine line between telling a story of children and marketing toys, a line that many companies foolishly fail to take note of. For example, the recent Cartoon Network hit Ben 10 and its two sequel series have rather blatantly abandoned reasonable story telling and continuity after a solid attempt early in Alien Force, and when the character calls out the alien names, the only reason for that is to make them memorable to kids when they go to the toy store. No, really, they have actually said that. And that’s nothing compared to the random crap that shows up in numerous Power Rangers series, though it seems independent of quality in that situation considering the number of new toy items that show up from In Space through Time Force.
But, while I’m kinda getting off topic here, its worth transitioning with Power Rangers because it did a solid job of putting the story first (most of the time). In the case of the next two reviews, we will be looking at another merchandise driven production that did that very same thing, as we delve into Hot Wheels: AcceleRacers.
First off, this week we will talk about World Race, the two-hour direct to DVD production that basically existed to sell more toys. However if there is any company that can take a bunch of toy cars and create a story that works for them, its our good friends from the north at Mainframe Entertainment, now Rainmaker Entertainment, responsible for such works as ReBoot, Beast Wars, and work for numerous games in the last few years, including CG animation work on Assassin’s Creed 2, Prototype, and Ghostbusters. So, let’s see how they did with their first attempt, shall we?
Our story opens with an in-car camera recording as a vehicle climbs a ramp of orange. The car fails the climb, and plummets, sparking some lamentation from a white haired man. Having built the fastest car in the world, he now suffers from the problem of lacking a sufficient driver for such a vehicle, so let’s jump to our protagonist, Vert Wheeler. Yeah, the names leave something to be desired, though apparently his real name is actually Joseph in the video game. Well, Vert is skateboarding, and spouts off something about being a “team of one” before heading off to talk to his Dad. He gets a rather trite comment about one day understanding what is really important, and some crap about team work. Yeah, this is gonna be a really obvious lesson he’ll learn, but it doesn’t feel quite as bad as it could.
In any case, he comes home after getting a perfect score on a driving test to find a super car with Hot Wheels emblazoned on the roof, and a mysterious head spouting off something about needing the greatest driver in the world. This guy is Peter Tezla, and right from the get go, he looks and acts like a cat-stroking Bond villain. Obviously, he is not interested in just holding a race for the hell of it, but I’m sure we’ll learn more later. Vert goes to the place that is marked on the car’s GPS, and talks to an even BIGGER mysterious talking head about how his company has invented the world’s most advanced racing technology, and offers a 5 million dollar prize to the winner. We see what the cars can do in a short scene, and even get a tiny bit of background on a few of our characters, in particular Kurt Wylde, a Grand Prix racer, and Taro Katano, a rich idiot with no day job. Also, we never see it, but it seems all the drivers have been introduced to each other, as Vert instantly knows Lani’s name when she asks him to be in a team with her.
Anyway, the drivers enter this track in another dimension (called Highway 35 for convenience sake), and come across the very ramp that Tezla’s robot car couldn’t climb. Vert, showing an inventive nature that is his character’s defining trait in this movie, uses a loop as a kind of half-pipe to gain speed. It’s implied that the other drivers basically have to follow suit, but its never shown. Later in the race, we see a mysterious driver in a mysterious car toss out a rigged bottle of Nitrox2 fuel, blowing a section out of the track. The car looks familiar, and it is so unbelievably obvious who it is that I don’t even know why they bothered to disguise it. In any case, Vert has a chance to win the first leg, but goes back to help Taro rescue Lani. Kurt wins the first leg of the World Race, and the drivers are now told to build teams to complete the remaining legs of the race, however many there may be. It’s at this point that Tezla appears Johnny Depp/Willy Wonka style, and tells them of the true objective of the race.
To be completely honest, this movie so far is fairly mediocre. Sure, there is some characterization, but it’s choppy, and not in a good way. Not knowing or seeing everything does work if done properly, but seriously, it’s been about 30 minutes, and I already know that Kurt is the saboteur. That is too early in the movie for something like that to be dropped on someone. Kurt’s brother Mark shows up to try and be on his brother’s team, but he isn’t having that. Vert, however, is lacking in friends who can drive, so he takes Mark along with him. Tezla acts like an obvious villain some more, and our saboteur meets with his handler, a woman named Gelorum. She is rather cold, but comes across as your standard government agent character. Weird name, but not unusual for this production.
The Racer’s hit the next track, and instead of Mountains, this one is a Forest. The drivers battle it out until Banjee, a rather pointless character, spots a purple track that might be a short cut. Yeah, it isn’t, but most of Vert’s team follows after them, while Taro and Kadeem, a not-so-pointless character, battle it out for first place on the real track. The saboteur stops to attack the secondary track, which ends up being completely pointless, but it does let us get more hints at his identity if we were dumb enough not to figure it out yet.
Lani shows off her brains here, and the teams both make it to the end after Taro and Kadeem tie the second leg of the race. It’s worth noting that I am leaving a lot of stuff out of this review, mainly due to the production actually being enjoyable. There are plenty of exciting and interesting sequences, not to mention really good car animation work. But, there are some flaws. For example, once Kurt sees the spinning wheel in front of the teams, why doesn’t he just use the lead he already has, combined with how long the cars will be stopped, to just race ahead and catch the two who are in the lead?
Anyway, we get a really nice sequence with Kadeem remembering the point of his joining the World Race: His people are in trouble, and five million bucks would really help his poor homeland. He has a vision of Hazeez, a blind seer from his homeland, who warns him of “the greatest danger” of all. The drivers enter the third leg of the World Race, a Desert track. At the beginning, the cars are stuck in the sand, forcing Kadeem’s team to use their sand tires, and Kurt to grapple onto one of the cars for a tow out. Vert comes up with the idea to hover out using his car’s boosters. In any case, Kadeem finds a strange circular object on top of a pyramid, and assumes that it is the Wheel of Power. Yeah, nobody in their right mind should believe that it would just be…
Oh, wow. Kurt in his saboteur outfit thinks it’s the Wheel of Power too. He and Kadeem fight over the worthless object, and Kurt’s identity is revealed, ruining his plans. Well, not really, but more on that in a moment. In any case, Banjee wins this round, and Kadeem has another meeting with his spirit guide and a short talk with Vert about why he is racing in the first place. Vert thinks about what winning would mean as a whole, and wonders what he should do. Gelorum speaks with Kurt again, and he is pressed into continuing on. He steals some of the special Nitrox2 fuel so that he and a pair of extra drivers can enter the next leg. That’s a ballsy move, when you think about it. He only gets one attempt at that, so if there is another leg after this one, then the whole plan is screwed. It turns out to be a good plan, but in any case, Kurt jumps through ahead of everyone else, and uses bombs to collapse the ice onto the road.
Okay, so we have Mountain, Forest, Desert, and now, Ice. Okay, well, I guess they can stop XANA’s evil plans on the way to the Wheel of Power. Sorry, getting my CGI series mixed up. In any case, Mark goes on ahead of the other drivers, who work together to try and remove or avoid the obstacles. By this point, every important character trait has been established for the cast members who will return in the sequel series, but there is at least one more twist left. Kurt decides to go back to help his brother when Mark is knocked out and hanging from a cliff. Doing so reveals that the two extra drivers that accompanied Kurt in a pair of flying cars are actually robots, unable to take the Wheel of Power, but able to help a human driver take it. Kurt fights the pair off, now wanting to win the race entirely on his own, and in a nice twist, is saved by his brother when he regains consciousness. Kurt and Mark race on for a bit, but Kurt’s experience gives him the upper hand. However, Vert catches up and races against Kurt. Seeing an opportunity, Vert uses his inventive mind again to ride the ice like a wave and jump in front of Kurt. Kurt attempts to copy the move, but ends up failing, costing him the race, and cementing Vert as the winner. At the end of the track, Vert comes across a city, and manages to capture the Wheel from atop a spire in the center. All the drivers are instantly teleported out, now that the race is over. It is a solid end to the race itself, even if the very end is a smidge boring after Vert beats Kurt.
Tezla awards Vert’s team their checks for five million, and allows all the drivers to keep their cars. However, Vert and the others want to race on Highway 35 again, but the portal will not reopen without the Wheel of Power. In what actually amounts to the weakest moment of the movie, Vert, Lani, and Taro go to Tezla’s lab, and find that he has managed to use a small percentage of the Wheel’s energy to power the whole of the US. However, the power is uncontrollable at this point, and goes a bit haywire, blowing out the circuits in the lab and damaging the Doc’s floating robot buddy. The problem here is that almost immediately, Tezla, now uncompromisingly revealed to be a good guy, gives up on trying to control the perpetual energy generator and just sends it back with the drivers. It ends up being a good idea, as Gelorum sends her army of robot drivers to steal it, but it still seems a little iffy. I suppose it might be dangerous to try experimenting with it at this point, and it will be safe (theoretically) from the robots while it is in Highway 35, but still, that is a LOT of wonderful potential to give up.
The last sequence is, by and large, unnecessary, as it is cars battling other cars, which almost always looks ridiculous. It also ends with the most blatantly commercial line of dialogue in the whole movie, which says a lot due to the absurd number of times the Hot Wheels logo shows up in this thing. Oh, and Gelorum is a robot too, what a shock. And, of course, it is that fact alone that turns Kurt back to the good side. Real cute.
So, how does World Race hold up? Well, surprisingly well, to be honest. By itself, it’s visually impressive for its time, and many of the character archetypes are solidly enjoyable. The racing is plenty exciting, and Tezla is very well played as a kind of mad scientist who really is looking out for the good of mankind. As for the remaining characters, the main value of this movie is to set up the next part of the story, though Kurt actually stands fairly well as a well-meaning antagonist. So, stay tuned for next time, when we look at the much-improved sequel, Acceleracers.