Writer-director Ross Venokur’s frenetic, heartfelt, funny, but derivative Rally Road Racers is Speed Racer (2008) for the Zootopia (2016) set. Though an Indian production, the story is set in China, with slow loris Zhi (Jimmy O. Yang) as the young hotshot protagonist forced to race against toad and reigning champion Archie Vainglorious (John Cleese, in full vocal regalia), who’s referred to as a frog when convenient. (Zhi’s surname is apparently Bai, which would make his name a near-homophone of baíchī, or “idiot.”)

Zhi has always wanted to be a racer, like perennial champion Archie. But as his grandmother (Lisa Lu) never tires of reminding him, speed goes against the ways of the slow loris village, modeled on traditional Chinese values such as harmony, tai chi, Dao, mahjong, a home altar to venerate ancestors (here Zhi’s dead mother), and the eschewing of haste. These elements can be superficial: Grandma entreats Zhi to find his Dao, illuminating the same road to self-actualization as the titular protagonist of Mulan (2020) does in unleashing her qì. Zhi races anyway, and by the time he reaches young adulthood, he’s pretty good — except that he chokes when, in the lead, he sees a car coming up behind him in the rearview.

Then one day, he opens the front door to an eviction notice and the rest of the village being demolished. In an echo of The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Archie Industries wants to convert the village into Muddy Meadows, a resort for, um, frogs. Zhi’s only choice is to bet the deed of his village on the Silk Road Rally, a four-part no-holds-barred race across China.

The slow loris design is cute to the point of uncanniness (production design by cinematographer Alexei Nechytaylo). The huge head (big enough to earn a crack from another character) has even huger eyes seemingly modeled on the proportions of the cute-off in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022), here with a thin translucent golden ring of an iris around ginormous pupils. Adorable when you don’t look closely, as you unfortunately do during slower dialogue scenes (edited by Adam Garner).

Zhi knows he has little chance of winning, and his melancholy air attracts the help of The Amazing Gnash (J.K. Simmons, in a vaguely Russian accent), a former champion who now sells motivational bumper stickers — the slogans are great for kid viewers and joked about for the adults. Gnash, a bespectacled goat, has the uproarious ability to toss a metal tool into his mouth and spit out an entirely different tool. As revealed plot points constellate, one idly wonders whether he’s Zhi’s father.

The absolute standout of the film is Cleese’s Archie, a vainglorious sociopath with a winning smile (never knew I’d want to see a toad — frog? — with orthodontically impeccable teeth). Cleese gives him the full self-righteous force of an East India Company director, complete with a horde of mindless froggy minions. And I do mean Minions: Called the Echoes, they seem to be taken straight from the 2015 film, even being voiced by a single person (there Pierre Coffin, here Kerry Shale, who also voices a few other minor roles). The key difference is that the Minions are genetically predisposed to serving villains, whereas the Echoes go through a brainwashing program and, in the film’s few moments of darkness, gesture to Zhi behind Archie’s back to contradict their boss, like the Black tears of Get Out (2017).


Photo Credit: Viva Pictures

We know they’ve been brainwashed because the flip side of Zhi’s bet with Archie is that, if Zhi loses, he’ll join the “Echo Training Program,” as outlined in a flier Archie hands him. Since they’re brainwashed, and the villain is actually evil unlike Gru, the Echoes are physically expendable, to the point where saving one earns Gnash the Echo’s lifelong loyalty. I hate to say this, but the way Archie mistreats them is hilarious; in one brief shot, we see one cleaning a sealed trophy case — from the inside.

Rounding out the supporting cast are two contradictory statements about gender. The only other slow loris Zhi meets is Shelby (sultrily voiced by Chloe Bennet, who, lest you’re tempted to cancel her for cultural appropriation in an animated film featuring anthropomorphic animals, is Chinese on her father’s side), a two-dimensional cog in the plot machine and object for the male (aural) gaze; the name, after the Ford muscle car, marks her as ear candy.

She’s balanced out by Beppe (Shale again, here in an Italian accent), the pregnant husband of a seahorse husband-and-wife racing team. As the most prominent of the miscellaneous other racers, Beppe at once highlights the possibility of pregnant trans men and undercuts the zombie claim that only cishet relationships are natural. It’s a small missed opportunity that the gender roles of him and his wife (Naomi McDonald) code the non-pregnant character as more masculine.

Finally we come to the racing, which I only mention because it’s in the title. It’s not great. This is a character-oriented film, however familiar the story beats are. Yes, Archie shoots missiles and Echoes at his competitors and buzzsaws an opponent’s car in half. But the Looney Tunes (1930–1969) animation style (animation directed by Nicolaus A. Chauvelot) and slapstick treatment of the Echoes deprive these dangers of real weight. We know who’s going to win, and how: By finding his Dao.

Yet derivative as it is, a good time can still be had by kids who haven’t seen the films on which it draws. One’s film education has to start somewhere. As for adult viewers — there’s always John Cleese as a toad/frog.

Rally Road Racers hits U.S. theaters May 12.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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