Warner Bros. set to vaguely irritate the easily irritated with ‘Speedy Gonzales’ film

I”d love to know the backstory behind the news today that Warner Bros. Animation Group is going to be making a Speedy Gonzales film.

Warner Bros. has been much better about embracing their animation legacy than Disney has because they”ve never hidden from their own past. One of the smartest things Warner has done when releasing collections of their older animation is including cartoons that have uncomfortable racial or sexual material, pointing out that they are the product of their time rather than pretending they never happened. It bothers me that Disney is willing to continually exploit the characters from Song Of The South at the Splash Mountain attraction and in merchandising, but they keep the film locked up in a way that only makes it seem more dangerous or offensive. Instead of putting together a release that would honor the work of James Baskett and the innovations of Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson and the source material colllected by Joel Chandler Harris, Disney continues to treat the film like a stain on the studio”s legacy.

Even so, even with their more progressive attitude, it surprises me that Warner Bros. is developing a new film for Speedy Gonzales. I spent over a decade married to a South American woman whose maiden name was Gonzales, and early in our relationship, I noticed that she had several stuffed Speedys. “I thought Latin people hated Speedy Gonzales,” I told her.

I told her that Speedy had just been shelved by the Cartoon Network when they purchased all broadcast rights to the Warner cartoons in 1999. “Why?” she asked, genuinely baffled by the sentiment. I explained about negative stereotypes and the way Mexicans didn”t want to be portrayed as lazy or slow.  “But Speedy”s fast,” she argued, undeniably correct. She was delighted by the shared last name, and she”s always had a fondness for the character.

Speedy isn”t merchandised nearly enough for fans, and compared to most of the big marquee characters, he”s practically invisible. Since my wife worked in immigration law, she dealt with a number of people who had moved to America from other places, and a huge percentage of those people were Mexican. Over time, she told me that she”d asked plenty of other people about Speedy, and she”d never run into anyone who was offended by the character. I think she refused to believe that anyone actually thought the character was racist in any way, and I always found that interesting.

While there are plenty of characters and films and stories from earlier eras of entertainment that are difficult to watch now, it feels like there is a sort of pre-emptive offense that we should evolve past at some point. When you”re making new art, you don”t approach it the same way you should when you”re talking about archiving art history. It”s not clear from the story in the Hollywood Reporter if Eugenio Derbez will be writing and/or directing the film in addition to voicing Speedy, but it”s an interesting choice. Derbez is the writer/director/star of one of the largest-grossing Spanish language film in the United States, the under-the-radar phenomenon Instructions Not Included, and he”s got a big broad mainstream sensibility. I was talking to Nick Stoller today about Neighbors 2, and we spoke briefly about Storks, the animated film he”s making for Warner Bros. It sounds like their animation team has a lot of momentum right now, something that”s been a problem for Warner feature animation in the past. The Lego movies alone would keep them busy, but they”re making other films as well, and it sounds like they”re actually trying to make it filmmaker-driven. If that”s true, then I”m curious to see who is the primary voice on this one is, and what they do with Speedy as a character. At his best, he feels like an early example of the “snobs-against-the-slobs” archetype, happily sassing people trying to keep his fellow mice down. It”s hard to imagine a whole feature film of that, but maybe this is the perfect moment for it. If the filmmakers behind this one refuse to play into the narrative that there”s anything wrong with Speedy, they might be surprised by just how much people love him.

They tried to find a way to make a Speedy movie in 2010 with George Lopez involved, but after the initial announcement, there was never another peep about that attempt. I”m curious to see if they actually end up making this. It felt like a very thin announcement today, and I”m confused about just how much Derbez is involved. But is it an interesting possibility? Sure. I”m curious to see if this configuration of Warner Animation Group can turn these familiar properties into theatrical hits. They”ve got The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Storks, The Lego Batman Movie, an Adventure Time movie, the sequel to The Lego Movie, Ninjago and Bone all on the slate already. That”s a lot of seriously branded content, and Speedy Gonzales is arguably as recognizable as any title on that list.

Is recognition the same as affection? That appears to be the biggest question facing any studio these days.

Storks is in theaters September 23, 2016.
The Lego Batman Movie is in theaters February 10, 2017.