Varnish Remover

The (Young) People’s Car

Sabotage, produced by J.J. Sedelmaier Productions Inc. for Volkswagen of America Inc.

Sabotage resurrects a Japanese import from the ‘70s–the Speed Racer cartoon series–to sell a ‘90s German import, the Volkswagen GTI. Produced and directed by the legendary J.J. Sedelmaier, the ad exploits the nascent nostalgia of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who watched the Speed Racer series in syndication during their younger days, or saw it during the ‘90s on MTV and the Cartoon Network.

The spot plucks the nostalgia chord in the first frames, opening like an episode of the cartoon series, with the Sabotage title splashed across the rotating wheel of Speed’s car, the Mach-5. The Japanese characters at the bottom of the title card credit Sedelmaier and his team, who have expertly mimicked the Japanimation style of the original series. To make it look more authentic, Sedelmaier corrupted the new animation by transferring the negative to a second one to make the cartoon look 25 years old. This emphasis on authenticity actuates Marshall McLuhan’s notion of medium as message: The cartoon is the real thing, and so is the car.

In the first scene, the hood is up and smoke is pouring out. The Mach-5 has been sabotaged. The Mach-5 is big, powerful, and gas-guzzling. What Speed needs something more efficient–smaller, but with big pickup and quick response.

Speed’s obviously rattled mechanic-friend, Pops, expresses panic–“Speed, if you don’t win, we could lose everything.” As in the series, the words are slightly out-of-sync–as if dubbed from the Japanese. Just in time, Inspector Detektor reveals the solution to Speed’s problem–keys with a VW logo–and presents him with the car. Speed knows what it is–“The Volkswagen GTI!”

We cut/dissolve to a yellow-and-red checkered race flag and into the race. As the GTI gains on the pack, Trixie, sitting in the passenger seat, urges her pilot on: “Faster, Speed!”

With competitors bumping each other, Pops issues his warning from the back seat (“Look out!”), previewing the coming assurance that while the GTI can race along, it still has room for four. It’s instantly maneuverable, too. Speed slips through the seam as a rival’s car plunges into a fiery crash. Another note of authenticity: The explosive sound effects come from the show’s old episodes.

Meanwhile, back inside the car, Speed avoids another fiery collision to cross the finish line under the black-and-white checkered flag. “It’s amazing,” Speed says. “It’s got room for four,” chimes in Pop from the back seat. Then Chim Chim the monkey and Speed’s kid brother Spridle pop up from the hatchback luggage space. “Make that six,” says Spridle, a perennial stowaway in Speed Racer episodes.

The green-and-yellow flag that fills the screen signals danger past, victory won; Speed survives to race another day. As he jumps from the GTI in the cartoon’s patented style, Speed delivers the VW slogan in voice-over, shifting from nostalgia to the now: “On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers.” The twentysomethings and thirtysomethings spent their time as passengers; their parents were driving while they were watching Speed Racer. Now, Sedelmaier’s spot brilliantly suggests, it’s their time to do the driving–in cars and in life. Time to race ahead in the vehicle that saved our hero–unless, of course, they’d rather just hold back, stay at home, and become couch potatoes staring at reruns of Speed and Trixie.

Speed Racer’ s musical theme–“Go Speed Racer, go!”–finishes the spot as the VW end card comes up: “Drivers wanted.” Sedelmaier has rescued Japanimation from a generational memory hole to sell a German car to young consumers who may consider it the opposite of cool. One relic redeems another: Drivers wanted for the gee-whiz GTI–and it may just get them.

–Robert Shrum