In the animal kingdom, names can be misleading.
King Cobras do not rule their own scaly kingdoms. Flying squirrels don’t actually fly. Electric eels are electric—but they’re not, technically, eels.
And slow lorises? Well, apparently, they’re not always slow. Especially when you get them behind the wheel.
Take Zhi (pronounced “Ghee”), a young slow loris from China. He isn’t content to move slowly, as slow lorises are expected to do. Speed’s his thing, and he’d love one day to be as famous a racecar driver as his idol, the cane toad Archie Vainglorious.
Admittedly, he’s got plenty of room for improvement: Zhi’s record on the track is … spotty. But that’s more due to some high-strung nerves than high-octane failures. If he’s behind in a given race, Zhi’s dynamite. But give the loris the lead, and the guy freezes up.
His grandmother would like Zhi to give up this racing thing and practice his tai chi, to settle down like a good loris should. All the other lorises (lori?) in the village wish he would stop causing ruckuses, which are very un-loris-like.
But when Vainglorious (who moonlights as a real estate mogul) buys the entire loris village and plots to tear the whole thing down, Zhi is faced with a daunting challenge. He must, somehow, earn enough money to save his grandmother’s house. And, if possible, the whole village, too.
Through a race, of course. And a bet.
Vainglorious’ trophy room is loaded with honors from around the globe, but one case sits empty. It’s reserved for the upcoming and inaugural Silk Road Rally, a four-day tear across China. Is it presumptuous to build a case for a trophy you don’t even have? Perhaps. But Vainglorious is nothing if not confident. So when Zhi bets that he can beat Vainglorious, the toad figures it’s an easy win.
If Zhi loses, the cute little loris will become the face of Muddy Meadows. And if he wins—well, Vainglorious will have to give up the deed to Zhi’s grandmother’s house. But that’s not likely to happen, is it?
After all (Vainglorious figures), it’s right in the species name. Slow lorises are … slow.
Zhi’s bet is perhaps ill-advised. But it certainly comes from a good place. He wants to save Granny’s house (where he also lives) and protect his mom’s final resting place. He’d love to save the rest of the village, too—and later on, some obligatory stakes-raising allows him the chance to do just that, albeit at serious personal risk.
But as the race goes on, he realizes that there are more important things than winning. Zhi forms strong friendships with many of the other racers, and he ultimately sacrifices precious time to save their precious lives. “I entered the Silk Road Rally to save family,” he says. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Zhi’s new “family” returns both his affections and his favor. But the biggest asset in Zhi’s corner is a wizened old goat named Gnash, who’s full of bumper-sticker aphorisms and some great advice. Gnash does his best to maximize Zhi’s strengths and minimize his racing weaknesses. And while their relationship hits a few speedbumps, Zhi couldn’t ask for a better friend.
Zhi and Granny also develop a new appreciation for each other. Granny understands that Zhi was somehow born to race. Meanwhile, Zhi discovers that Granny’s ways have their own beauty and power.
And what are those ways? Well, let’s hop down to the next section and find out.
Granny is a practitioner of tai chi, a martial art originating in China that taps into both Confucianist and Taoist thought. In the movie, the practice of tai chi’s graceful forms seem to imbue those who practice it a certain supernatural focus—allowing time in the movie to slow down.
But Granny seems especially concerned that Zhi should use tai chi to find his “Tao” (or “Dao”). The idea behind Tao (the central element in the religion of Taoism) is probably too complex for a Christian American movie reviewer to understand fully. But in the movie it manifests itself as a sense of purpose or path. (The word Tao is often translated as the “way.”) Granny believes that Zhi is so unsettled in part because he hasn’t yet found his Tao, which is partly true. But (the story suggests) she’s also pushing him to deny what is obviously a part of his Tao, his racing, and instead follow her path.
Zhi and Granny’s house contains a shrine memorializing Zhi’s mother, complete with candles, offerings and a big painting of her. Granny talks with the portrait regularly, as if the person it represents could hear her.
Zhi becomes smitten with another slow loris named Shelby. They dance at a shindig, and the two kiss at one point. Zhi starts fantasizing about a future wedding, and his and Shelby’s relationship becomes a critical part of the plot.
But they’re not the only couple. Zhi befriends a husband-and-wife seahorse race team. The male seahorse, Pepe, is pregnant (and indeed, in nature male seahorses are the ones who are pregnant and give birth), and we hear a number of pregnancy cliché’s leave his mouth. (When Pepe gets upset, for instance, he begins craving a “pint of ice cream and some seaweed pad Thai.”)
Baboon racing twins seem, at times, to be conjoined by their buttocks. (Nothing critical is seen, and their apparent attachment is mainly played for laughs.) While we hear quite a bit about Zhi’s mother, there’s never a mention of his father.
The rules in animal car races are apparently looser than they are in people-driven races. Indeed, in the Silk Road Rally, we’re told right up front that other than simply finishing, there are no rules.
Vainglorious takes full advantage of this laxity, firing off missiles and unleashing buzz saws at his competitors, doing his best to sideline his competition permanently. (Picture the pod-racing sequence from Star Wars: Episode I and fuse it with Mario Kart, and you’ve got a fair approximation of what to expect.)
But other participants have their own questionable methods of getting ahead. One team rides in a massive—and destructive—vehicle that looks like one giant wheel (and which doesn’t come, it seems, with a steering mechanism). An American team in an oversize truck runs straight over some competitors’ cars. A British team tosses out teacups and pots. Etc.
Cars crash, careen, fly, explode and crash some more—though no one seems to get seriously hurt. The one exception: The stork tasked with starting the race gets progressively more black-and-blue with each new day, comedically indicating the number of times he’s been hit and run over.
Fisticuffs are also on the menu. Gnash and a tiger get into a fight—a mere prelude to a massive melee featuring most of the drivers and several of Vainglorious’ hench-tigers. Several are knocked out (or knock themselves out).
The most truly life-threatening scene takes place on a frozen lake, where several cars are stuck. The ice begins to crack, and a car begins to slip into the crevasse—causing great alarm to its trapped inhabitants. (Oddly, the critters threatened usually live underwater—making their fear seem oddly ill-placed. But we’ll move on.)
Homes get bulldozed. Archie routinely fires his own henchmen (whom he calls Echoes) into the air. (In one imaginative sequence, one seems to explode there.) Characters are tied up. Pots are smashed. People are knocked over. Cars are cut in half. Property is damaged. Someone is zapped via joy buzzer. Echo toads are stepped on.
It appears that the extended Vainglorious family is involved in organized crime. And Vainglorious’ father seems to threaten his son in some manner if the racer loses his bet with Zhi. “If you lose Muddy Meadows, you lose everything,” his dad says menacingly, slicing him out of a family photo.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that Zhi’s mother also was a racecar driver, and she apparently died during an ill-advised maneuver.
None, but we do hear “heck” and “darn,” and Zhi says the incomplete phrase “What the—?!” several times. Vainglorious, when he’s booed, tells the crowed, “If I had middle fingers, you’d all know it right now.”
Zhi literally gambles on his future. Not only that, but he initially lies to his Granny about it—though Granny knows he’s not telling the truth. (A telltale twitch in Zhi’s eye gives him away.)
Zhi is shamed a bit by some of his fellow villagers for being an atypical Slow Loris. There’s a reference to elbow skin and fireproof underpants. There’s a serious betrayal in play.
Back when the COVID pandemic was in full swing and folks were speculating about what movies might look like afterward, some guessed we’d seen the last of animated kids’ movies in theaters. Most, the rumor went, would land on streaming services and would be watched at home—where snacks were plentiful and bathrooms easier to access.
Rally Road Racers suggests that just the opposite might be happening.
The film—distributed by lesser-known Viva Pictures—feels like it’d be more at home on a streaming service, to be honest. But with The Super Mario Bros. Movie collecting countless gold coins and the recent successes of Minions: The Rise of Gru, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, why not enter the theatrical race?
But line Rally Road Racers up with those animated heavyweights, it feels like this one lacks the horsepower to keep up.
The movie, as a movie, is just fine. It’s watchable and entertaining—even if its funniest characters (Archie Vainglorious’s countless Echoes) owe more than a bit to Despicable Me’s Minions. It offers some nice messages about family and friendship, too.
But the movie feels underdeveloped and, ultimately, forgettable. And for families, it contains more issues than you’d expect. In addition to the frequent fights and crashes, and in addition to the sly winks toward profanity, Christian parents will need to drive through a veritable construction zone of spiritual issues—certainly stuff that’s navigable with conversation, but perhaps more trouble than some will want to go through for a theater outing.
Rally Road Racers offers moviegoers a fast-paced film. But its checkered content keeps it from taking the checkered flag.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.