This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
Car racing has been a staple of children's entertainment for generations, whether it was the Wacky Races, The Love Bug (or indeed any of the subsequent Herbie movies), right up to the adventures of Lightning McQueen and co in the Cars franchise. Racing is something that captivates children's imaginations, if nothing else because it's the everyday made larger-than-life on screen. Road Rally Racers is another attempt to capitalise on that simple premise, but this time with something of a twist but partnering racing with Tai Chi.
Road Rally Racers follows the story of Zhi, a young Loris who lives with his Grandmother who wants nothing more than to race. However, his “Tao” is misaligned and despite his grandmother's insistence he should focus on that over racing. Zhi is not a wildly successful racer, but he tries his best. However, everything changes when Archie Vainglorious, a successful racing Toad who Zhi has previous experience against, tries to demolish the Loris village to build new luxury homes, and the only way Zhi can stop him is by racing against Archie and winning in the Silk Road Rally.
Anyone who has seen a children's movie involving this sort of plot knows the touch points of where it's going, so there's nothing wildly unpredictable going on with Road Rally Racers in terms of the story. It's neatly told, with some really fun moments, but it's far from approaching the reinvention of the wheel. However, it doesn't need to, what Road Rally Racers manages to do is take a format that is perhaps a little formulaic by necessity and inject it with a vibrant, unique visual style and a light, energetic tone. When combined with a feel-good soundtrack, it's a lot of fun. The animation is engaging but distinctive, and doesn't feel like something that would come from Illumination or Pixar, but something far more unique.
Another great strength of Road Rally Racers comes from it's vocal cast. Jimmy O. Yang is very good as Zhi, bringing a sense of innocence but also like-ability to the main character, while Chloe Bennet is tremendously fun as Shelby, while Catherine Tate and Sharon Horgan are also a lot of fun in their respective roles. However, the two stars of the show are the elder statesmen of the film in the form of JK Simmons and John Cleese. Simmons is clearly having the time of his life voicing Gnash, Zhi's unlikely mentor and a former rally champion. Much of the comedy relief comes from Gnash, and Simmons' delivery is a huge part of what makes that work so effectively here. For Cleese's part, he goes full-on pantomime villain as Archie Vainglorious, bombastic and outrageously evil. Cleese even performs a rap, which was unexpected, but somehow it works.
With a family-friendly 93 minute runtime, Road Rally Racers is pretty well paced and like all good family movies it offers a strong moral story about the journey a person will go on during their life. In this instance it's Zhi learning to balance his Tao and becoming a becoming the racer he always had the potential to be while making new friends and growing as a person, or in this case loris, in the process. There are moments of wacky action that would bring to mind the spirit of the aforementioned Wacky Races, or for the adults a hint of the zany adventures of Cannonball Run. It makes for a really enjoyable experience that works on multiple levels.
Overall, Road Rally Racers feels like a very solid effort, with a strong message and a unique visual style. It may lack a truly original story, but there's plenty of well-written gags, high-octane animated race sequences and some really loveable characters that more than make up for the use of any well-trodden tropes. It's a movie with a great heart that will be a fun watch for all the family.
Rally Road Racers is released in cinemas on September 15th