Movie Review: “Road Rally Racers” Hark Back to the Kiddie Animation Past

“Road Rally Racers” is an Anglo-Welsh production of an Anglo-American animated film set in China, and released by U.S. based distributor Viva Kids.

I think I have all that straight — Vanguard Animation, Riverstone Pictures, Viva Kids. Right.

It’s an animated reminder that everything old is new again — a not-all-that-pleasant reminder.

Any kid growing up in the late ’60s or early ’70s would have been exposed to a sort of pan cultural obsession with “racing” narratives, many of them comic. These were all over the big screen — “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,” “The Great Race” — and they were on Saturday AM TV.

“Speed Racer,” “Wacky Races,” “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop,” you couldn’t miss this “content” in the East (“Speed Racer” was a Japanese franchise) or West fifty years ago. In the American versions, screwball characters, often in the form of critters, would race bizarre cartoon cars across all manner of terrain — usually in rallies.

That’s exactly what “Road Rally Racers” is, a cross-China “Silk Road Ralley” race featuring a tycoon “cane toad” villain (John Cleese, of course) competing with everything from an Italian seahorse (he’s pregnant) to Indian Gibbons (apes), Tigers, British weasels, a racing team that looks like pangolins, with an Aussie kangaroo (Sharon Horgan) delivering broadcast commentary.

The plucky underdog is actually a Slow Loris, a primate native to China.

Why the producers chose this little known, panda-cute creature may have had something to do with its name. A Slow Loris named Zhi (Jimmy O. Yang) whose “tao” is out of whack is determined to become a famous race car driver. Funny. Because he’s “slow” by species, you see.

Another feature of lorises is that some species have a seriously venomous bite, so maybe there’s a message in that, too.

Zhi was raised by his Granny (Lisa Lu), who never can get him to stop painting soup pots and wearing them as helmets. His tao is never going to be in sync with his destiny if he keeps racing and crashing the way he always has.

When Archie Vaingloriuous (Cleese) and his Vainglorious Industries roll into to take over the village of Muddy Meadows, bulldoze and flood it, Zhi must race to save Granny Bai, the village, all of them.

J.K. Simmons sports a Russian accent voicing a goat and retired veteran racer who chomps down on pieces of metal that he then spits out of something useful — a piston or a grappling hook). He’s here to help Zhi. But he speaks in bumper-sticker slogans, because that’s now his business.

“The heart of a champion beats in all of us.” “Winners are always winning, even when they’re losing.”

Cleese’s “Vainglorious” villain keeps a ready supply of yes-men toads he calls “echoes,” ejecting one after another from his car all through the race. A new one always pops out of the trunk and into the passenger seat as he does.

The toothy toad Vainglorious sizes up the kid and mutters “SUPER nice guy. Looking forward to annihilating him!”

No, there is nothing here for adults, even the grandparents who might recall the shows this movie borrows from. Barely a laugh, even though Cleese gives it that old Cambridge try.

The animation’s not bad, even if it won’t be giving Pixar (“Cars”) or Disney (“Wreck it Ralph/Ralph Breaks the Internet” had a similar car race game sequence) any sleepless nights. The one clever bit has the action switching to sketched black and white in an homage to the music video to a-ha’s “Take on Me.”

Still, parents looking for anything that isn’t “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in their local cineplex might be fooled into ducking into this. I wouldn’t count on it to distract your average five year old for 90 minutes.

Rating: PG, the odd rude bit

Cast: The voices of Jimmy O. Yang, Chloe Bennet, Lisa Lu, Sharon Horgan, J.K. Simmons and John Cleese.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Ross Venokur. A Viva Kids release of a Riverstone Pictures production.

Running time: 1:31


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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