Speed Racer (United States, 2008)
There's no doubt that the Wachowskis' vision of Speed Racer is big, wild, and overripe with garish colors. It's what I'd imagine it might be like trapped inside a video game or a pinball machine. It's a kaleidoscope gone mad. Yet this kind of visual overdrive has its limits, and with little else to recommend it, Speed Racer passes the barrier between 21st century innovation and psychedelic diarrhea long before the cars have come close to the finish line. What impresses with its "wow!" factor early on becomes repetitive and headache-inducing later in the proceedings. At an exceedingly long 135 minutes, the film needs more than what might result from the explosion of a Crayola factory, and Speed Racer has nothing extra to offer - no heart, no excitement, no moments to cherish.
Speed Racer is based on cartoon that is revered in some circles as an early pre-cursor to anime. In crafting their "live" version, the Wachowskis have tried to remain faithful to the source material while attempting a radical upgrade. The difference between "classic" Speed Racer and this is like comparing a horse-drawn carriage to a Lamborghini. Everything except the actors in this movie were manipulated on a computer. The sense of artifice is monumental and intentional, as are many of the cheesy graphics. When the cars look like hot wheels vehicles zooming around the track, one has to assume that was the idea. The laws of physics and logic have been stripped from the equation. This is spectacle at 24 frames per second: colors, images, cars zipping and flying in all directions - everything for the ADD viewer, except I'm wondering what ADD viewer is going to sit through more than two hours of this. There's a reason why Disney limits the running time of its animated pictures, but that's not a lesson the Wachowskis have learned.
Occasionally, the movie dials things down and tries to remind us there are human beings in the movie by giving them painfully false "character moments." This may be the most insulting aspect of the movie - expecting us to accept these paper-thin individuals as anything more than animated props. Worse still, the dialogue during these supposedly "moving" scenes is full of clunkers and clichés. It's bad soap opera. Not only are there a few too many of these scenes but almost all of them last too long. The only interesting thing about most of them is the inventive means by which the Wachowskis transition into and out of them. No wipes or irises for these brothers.
The story - or at least what passes for one - introduces us to the Racer family. (This hearkens back to the days when a surname represented an individual's craft: Carpenter, Smith, Baker, Miller, etc.) There's Pops Racer (John Goodman), Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon), Rex Racer (Scott Porter), Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), and Spritle Racer (Paulie Litt). Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed's girlfriend, is around so much she's like a daughter to Pops and Mom. Rex doesn't have a lot of screen time - he's burnt to a crisp during an early flashback. Most of the movie concerns Speed coming into his own on the track. When he wins a high-profile race, he catches the eye of big business mogul Royalton (Roger Allam), who wants Speed to race for him. But there's a conflict of interests here: Speed races for the love of the sport but Royalton does it for the money and claims that all of the big races are fixed. Thus begins Speed's quest to prove himself and upset the plans of the fixers. He has a few allies - Trixie, his family, and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), a character who looks like a bad superhero knock-off.
Arguably, the most disappointing aspect of Speed Racer is the lack of excitement in the races. Since these contests were executed entirely on a computer, one would expect them to have been developed with fluidity and clarity. Instead, they're a jumpy, jittery, and at times incoherent blur. The Watchowskis make it a chore to figure out who's in the lead and, during some of the more extreme moves, what's going on. To speed things along, they turn portions of the races into montages. The "sport" element is completely removed from the storyline. Victory is a fait accompli. The only thing we're sticking around in the theater for is to see how outrageous the track can get. There's more energy and tension in George Lucas' much-maligned pod race in The Phantom Menace than in all of Speed Racer's numerous contests combined.
It's amazing how competent actors can fade into the background when overwhelmed by such flamboyant visuals. Emile Hirsch, who showed acting chops in Sean Penn's Into the Wild, is almost invisible here. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon only have a few instances in which they stand out more forcefully than the wallpaper. Matthew Fox is lost. Only Christina Ricci and Roger Allam call attention to themselves. Ricci does it because she somehow conveys a sense that she belongs in this world. Allam does it by going so far over the top that the air starts getting thin. His Royalton is the kind of Big Bad Tycoon who makes Rupert Murdoch seem like a philanthropist and Donald Trump resemble a poster boy for humility.
Throughout their careers, which have had big ups and downs, the Wachowskis have never been known for restraint, and there's none of it evident here. Speed Racer is the perfect companion piece for a kick-ass video game. It looks and feels like one - so much so that older viewers may find themselves flashing back to Tron. The filmmakers would like us to believe that Speed Racer has been designed with the "kid in all of us" in mind, and that's as clear an admission of its juvenile nature as anything. Still, one has to wonder whether the target audience might not be children but LSD users in search of a flashback. Because, in the end, it's a bad trip.
Speed Racer (United States, 2008)
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam, Paulie Litt, Scott Porter
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers