‘Fast & Furious’ Rides Into Cartoon Escapism With ‘Spy Racers’

Fast & Furious Spy Racers” is one of this season’s oddest family offerings. It scales down the speeding cars and ridiculous plots of the “Fast & Furious” franchise for a kid-friendly cartoon. The irony is that the last few movies in the endless series were getting so absurd that an animated version makes more sense. Just what age range should watch it will depend on what you consider worthwhile entertainment for younger viewers. If the storyline has any kind of message it’s all derived from the much-chuckled about way Vin Diesel keeps referring to his crew as “family” in the movies. This first season may not have much of a deeper meaning, but it definitely delivers on the car action.

Our main character is Tony Toretto (Tyler Posey), teen cousin of “Fast & Furious” bigwig Dominic (Diesel). Instead of doing the usual things teenagers do, like go to school, Tony races and leads a crew composed of Echo (Charlet Takahashi Chung), a master artist, Frostee (Luke Youngblood), the resident tech genius, and Cisco (Jorge Diaz), a good driver and muscled snack-eating machine. A visit by cousin Dom results in Tony and his gang being recruited by a government agent named Ms. Nowhere (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Nowhere wants them to infiltrate the racing crew of the mysterious Sashi Dhar (Manish Dayal), leader of the organization SH1FT3R. The government suspects SH1FT3R is planning a major heist with global consequences (of course), so it’s up to Tony and his crew to figure out what exactly Sashi wants. To get inside Tony first crashes a race involving SH1FT3R’s top driver, the enigmatic Layla Gray (Camille Ramsey). Rivalry and sparks fly between the two and Tony also manages to start winning Sashi’s trust. But if the cover is blown there could be deadly consequences.

Co-produced by Diesel, who makes an early appearance in the pilot, “Spy Racers” essentially condenses into 24-minute episodes the over the top action scenes that become center pieces in the movies. Even for an animated show this one’s thin on plot, to the point where it nearly becomes meaningless. The entertainment value here are well-designed sequences in every episode of Tony racing through valleys, mines, sewers, cities and highways in a flashy car, against other flashy cars equipped with gadgets that would make Elon Musk take notes. It’s easy to imagine kids basking in just the sights and silly energy, where the animation can make the cars do things hard to pull off in a live action feature film. Adults who are fans of the “Fast & Furious” franchise might get disinterested only because it’s not meant for them, which means there’s barely any Vin Diesel. The plot never wants to return to those early movies where it was just about thieves and racers, it’s firmly planted in the world of the later movies where global conspiracies involving super villains require that mechanics team up with shadowy agencies.

But the question hovering over much of “Spy Racers” is what young viewers would get out of it aside from episode after episode of colorful yet mindless action. The characters are just vehicles for a rehashed plot. For at least the first four there’s no background to anyone. We just know Tony is related to Dom, but neither he nor anyone else in the crew seem to come from anywhere other than a “Fast & Furious” plot. The show goes for some easy sentimentalism by emphasizing in the first episode the franchise’s famous motto of “family,” as Dom encourages Tony to aid the government in a spy mission. After all he’s a Toretto which means he’s in it to win. The message is to stick together with your friends, even while hijacking transport trucks. But these kids equipped with high-tech gear and skills apparently have no parents, exist in a world without school, and talk like action movie clichés. The charm of animated action films like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is how a character like Peter Parker becomes relatable through his everyday hassles while still dealing with villains seeking world domination. In “Spy Racers” the most relatable thing about Tony is that he obviously starts having a crush on Layla, which is done well with some teenage subtly.

That note aside, “Spy Racers” still delivers everything you would expect in any story taking place within the “Fast & Furious” universe. The government uses street racers in tank tops to stop mad threats while car pirates hang out at rooftop parties with drone DJs. And of course there are slick cars everywhere, which do look fantastic with this style of animation. The racing sequences are also pure adrenaline, even when they threaten to top the absurdity of the movies. The teen leads are also likeable in their different personalities, even when it’s hard to believe they would be caught in such an archaic plot. Frostee can design wild gadgets and hack into anything, Cisco is the goofball who spills hot drinks on himself during a big chase and Tony just drives really, really well. “Fast & Furious” joins classic guilty pleasures like “Power Rangers,” where high schoolers who do some karate have to fight galactic monsters every week. Tony and his crew could go on for many more seasons for sure.

Essentially the best way to describe “Spy Racers” is as pure, glossy distraction. The kids may get little out of it except for a fascination with speeding tires and glowing computer screens, but it won’t bore them in the same way candy can be immensely appealing. Older fans of the movies may realize they’re a bit too tall to get on this ride.

Fast & Furious Spy Racers” season one begins streaming Dec. 26 on Netflix.