REVIEW: Rally Road Racers (2023, dir. Ross Venokur)

Certificate: U

Running Time: 92 mins

UK Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

UK Release Date: 15 September 2023

WHO’S IN RALLY ROAD RACERS?

Jimmy O. Yang, J.K. Simmons, Chloe Bennett, Lisa Lu, Sharon Horgan, Catherine Tate, John Cleese, Naomi McDonald, Rebecca Yeo

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Ross Venokur (director, writer), Jackky Bhagnani, Vashu Bhagnani, Nik Bower, Deepshika Deshmukh, Deepak Nayar, Peter S. Seaman and John H. Williams (producers), Tom Howe (composer), Alexei Nechytaylo (cinematographer), Adam Garner (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young car racer (Yang) enters a competitive championship…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON RALLY ROAD RACERS?

In a year where animation has largely been top-notch, thanks to titles like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Nimona and Elemental all gaining critical and audience appraisal, it’s almost necessary to have something like Rally Road Racers come along and remind all of us that there are still plenty of mediocre ones out there.

While I fully acknowledge that I am in no way the target audience for this movie – it is much more aimed at very young children, no older than five or even six at a stretch, and for them it’s harmless enough – that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to necessarily talk about as an adult viewer, particularly with how generic and surprisingly bizarre it can be in parts.

Set in a version of China that, like the rest of this world, is populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals, we follow young slow loris Zhi (voiced by Jimmy O. Yang) who dreams of becoming a race car driver, although his grandmother Bai (Lisa Lu) would rather he practise his tai chi skills instead. However, when the slow loris village in which they live is threatened with demolition by maniacal racing champion frog Archie Vainglorious (John Cleese), Zhi makes a bet that he can beat the undefeated champion in an upcoming four-day race across China, which would save his home from destruction. Teaming up with Russian-accented former racer turned wise mechanic Gnash (J.K. Simmons), Zhi enters the championship as an underdog, but soon becomes a champion of a different kind, including in the eyes of fellow slow loris Shelby (Chloe Bennett).

While it is heavily generic, to a near-fatal fault, there are some things to appreciate about Rally Road Racers. One of them is that it largely manages to resist the urge to fall back on low-brow juvenile humour for its younger audience; there’s nary a fart joke or bodily function gag in sight, which for a kids’ movie in this day and age that isn’t from one of the top animation studios is quite a bold, but very much welcome, thing to do. The film certainly isn’t free of groan-worthy humour, topical references to things like, of all things, Brexit, or the odd bit of pandering (there’s a moment when the villain suddenly performs a rap number, complete with bling necklaces and mic-drops, to the audience for no real reason), but next to many of the other under-the-radar animated movies that think far less of their young viewers, this one at least knows when to treat them with a bit more respect.

The film is also clearly, and admirably, going for a tone and vibe that’s not unlike the silly, anything-goes nature of old-guard racing cartoons like Speed Racer (whose influence can be felt in the fast-paced racing scenes themselves) and especially Wacky Races, which Rally Road Racers perhaps owes most of its inspiration to. There are numerous car designs of varying creativity, featuring weaponry that you could see the likes of Dick Dastardly and Muttley using on their opponents, many of whom are distinguishable enough to compensate for otherwise thin or non-existent personalities. There’s even a pair of race commentators – in this case, a kangaroo voiced by Sharon Horgan putting on an Australian accent, and Catherine Tate doing a weird Björk-inspired bit as her aloof cousin – who, as in Wacky Races, seem to have an omniscient knowledge of everything the racers are doing, even when cameras aren’t present.

If the movie spent more time building on that aspect, instead of opting for a very formulaic racing movie template that even the recent Gran Turismo was guilty of following, then it could definitely have worked more than it does. Instead, while its heart is definitely in the right place, and none of the characters or even many of the gags are too annoying or even that obnoxious, Rally Road Racers never becomes anything remotely profound, or interesting to anyone outside of its very young demographic. It’s not exactly an unpredictable plot, as it follows pretty much all the plot beats that you’d expect a movie like this to, and the characters more or less fall into their expected archetypes, from the wise mentor to the over-the-top villain to his numerous Minion-esque sidekicks to the love interest, and so on. Some of the voice acting is a little distracting, particularly John Cleese who seems like he was miscast as a character clearly written to be much younger than he sounds, making it weird every time you hear this character talk to his father and even call him “daddy” with Cleese’s raspy old-man baritone.

The animation is passable, for there are times when you can see some of the textures on the characters and the intricate details of some very colourful backgrounds, but elsewhere it’s standard stuff, with nothing especially eye-popping. That is, except for one instance where, slap-bang in the middle of a major racing sequence, all of a sudden it becomes a full-on parody of A-ha’s famous music video for “Take on Me” – and I mean full-on, for in addition to the song playing on the soundtrack, the whole animation style changes to that sketch-drawing aesthetic from the video. It’s by far the most memorable scene in the movie, both visually and conceptually (not to mention the fact that it’s still a banger of a tune), but at the same time it’s a bizarre inclusion that makes the song’s out-of-place appearance in The Super Mario Bros Movie feel more normal by comparison.

There’s plenty of other strange little touches throughout, like a supporting character who’s this male Italian racer who’s not just a seahorse in a water-filled mechanical suit but is also heavily pregnant and going through the regular late-stage pregnancy hormonal trials (why he’d risk his unborn babies’ safety by entering what turns out to be a pretty dangerous racing tournament is one of many questions left unanswered). You also have moments when the main character basically acquires super-speed out of nowhere – it has something to do with tai chi – and is running around while everyone else is in slow-motion, like he’s Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s pretty odd stuff, even for a silly cartoon aimed at young children, but once again if the film embraced that weird side of itself, then maybe it could have been stronger.

Instead, Rally Road Racers is just an inoffensive but very much middle-of-the-rally-road animated kids’ film.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Rally Road Racers is a harmless family racing movie with occasional bursts of Wacky Races-inspired weirdness, but not enough to fully overcome its heavily generic and ultimately forgettable script.

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