Review by Daniel Blackaby May 12, 2023
Rally Road Racers (Christian Movie Review)
Verdict: Despite its lack of polish, the movie offers passable fun and a wholesome message for younger viewers, though some potentially thorny elements may have parents looking for an off-ramp.
About The Movie
The smashing success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie demonstrated that, contrary to recent trends, family audiences have not wholly abandoned movie theaters. Now, Rally Road Racers has come speeding seemingly out of nowhere to test that theory. The animated movie has arrived without much promotion and from a relatively unknown production studio, although it does feature several recognizable voice actors (J. K. Simmons, Chole Bennet, John Cleese). The movie offers passable fun and wholesome messages for younger viewers, although some potentially thorny elements may have parents looking for an off-ramp.
Whereas many animated films originally bound for theaters have been dropped straight to streaming in recent years, Rally Road Racers seems like a straight-to-streaming movie that took a wrong turn and somehow found its way into theaters. The film is not necessarily bad, but it lacks the polish of comparable films. In both the plot and visuals, the movie wavers between clever and unfinished. The mixture of 3D and 2D animation is occasionally interesting, particularly in a creative scene that adopts a black-and-white sketch aesthetic, but the animation as a whole is somewhat bland. The story offers several fun moments, but the worldbuilding never really feels developed or immersive. Overall, it comes across like an early draft of a more competent film.
After watching the trailer on the way to the theater, my 8-year-old son (an astute cultural critic) mused, “Daddy, I think the people making movies have run out of ideas.” Indeed, Rally Road Racers pulls many elements from other films. The villain’s army of amusing, miniscule henchmen are reminiscent of Despicable Me’s minions, and the main character’s journey has much in common with Po from Kung Fu Panda. Even the final lines of the film are a self-aware nod that the story is essentially a retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare fable.
The general themes and morals of the story are wholesome—accepting who you are and sacrificing on behalf of others. But there are also some thorny content elements that parents must navigate (see sections below).
Both my kids enjoyed the movie, which may be an indicator of how it will resonate with its target audience. It contains enough humor (more snappy wit than slapstick) and excitement to keep kids entertained, although probably not enough to captivate them. Yet considering some of the problematic elements, such diverting entertainment may not be worth the effort for parents. It was a bold decision to put the film into theaters, but Rally Road Racers will likely need to be content to finish the race near the back of the pack rather than on the podium.
On the Surface
Language: No profanities. A character says, “what the heck,” and several other “rude words” are used, such as “idiot” and “imbecile.”
Violence: Characters get into several brawls, but without blood or real stakes.
Sexuality: There are two main elements here, one more problematic than the other. First, there is a heavy emphasis on the main male character’s infatuation with the female. They talk about “being into” each other. She daydreams of him, and he’s thinking of weddings. There’s not necessarily anything nefarious or unnatural going on, but it might be a lot for parents who are uncomfortable with prepubescent children being introduced to that dynamic of hormonal, romantic boy-girl relationships.
The second, more concerning element involves a male seahorse character who is pregnant. According to Google, seahorses are one of the only species in the animal kingdom in which the males carry the offspring, so the depiction is not factually inaccurate. Even so, it is certainly jarring. Given the current cultural backdrop, choosing the only species in which the male gets pregnant seems conspicuous and motivated. The character is not merely pregnant, but essentially a caricature of pregnancy (emotional mood swings, etc.). Both my sons immediately noticed the oddity of a pregnant male, and while a simple explanation after the movie quickly clarified the issue, some parents may choose to avoid that imagery or conversation.
Other: Eastern spirituality and religion plays a central role in the story, which features an ancestral shrine to which characters speak and pray. Another focus is on Tai Chi finding “Tao” (see more below).
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
Finding Your Purpose and “Tao”
The movie seems to mix western individualism with eastern spirituality and religion. The main character, Zhi, wrestles to find his own sense of identity and purpose in contrast to what his grandmother and others in his community expect of him. He is a “slow lorise”—an animal that seems to be a mixture of a sloth and a bear—with an uncommon need for speed. He expresses his vexation at the other slow lorises’ disapproval, declaring, “I’m just trying to be me.”
The theme of finding where you belong is a frequent motif in animated storytelling, but what sets it apart here is the quasi-spiritual and religious path of discovery. Zhi’s grandmother attempts to instruct him in Tai Chi, a form of martial arts and meditation intended to guide people to find their “Tao.” In the film, “Tao” is depicted as both a sense of inner peace and self-awareness, as well as a superpower that literally slows down time. Rather than achieving the “Tao” through meditation, it is presented as something you gain once you embrace your true purpose, which in the case of Zhi, is when he becomes a racer. The film does not necessarily “preach” this spirituality; rather, it reflects the religious beliefs of the culture in which the story is set. But it is a central element in the plot.
Thinking of Others
Another theme is the importance of overcoming selfishness and thinking of others. While Zhi initially is drawn to racing for self-focused reasons and passion, his motivation for joining the dangerous Silk Road race is to protect his grandmother and his village. During the race, his need to win motivates him, and he is furious when his co-driver/mentor stops on the side of the road to help someone in need. But later in the race, it is Zhi who sacrifices a quick finish in order to help some of the other drivers whom he has befriended, demonstrating his personal growth. His mentor teaches a slogan, which Zhi echoes at the end of the film, that “winners are always winning, even when they’re losing.” The implication is that there are more important things in life than personal victory.