If there’s a problem with the Wachowskis’ kinda sorta live-action adaptation Speed Racer, it’s one of address—is this a movie for kids, or for grown-ups who grew up watching the early anime import in its late-sixties heyday (and/or its brief late nineties revival)?
It’s rated PG, and follows the basic structure of the cartoons perfectly (goofy melodrama and racing action for older kids, silly comedy relief involving Spritle and Chim Chim for younger kids).
But it’s also about two hours and fifteen minutes long, kind of heavy on the swearing and arty as all hell.
Will the same kids who enjoy a chimpanzee in osh koshes and think Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci mashing their perfect lips together is gross appreciate scenes of wicked tycoons talking about manipulating the stockmarket while profiles of their faces float across the screen, or the 2001: A Space Odyssey-like moment where the hero goes so fast he, like, transcends visual information?
I don’t know. This is a film that’s easy to see audiences both loving and hating, depending on the individual sitting in the seats, and their own ages, experiences and preferences.
Me, I loved it.
Say what you will about the Wachowskis as storytellers, the one area they excel at is special effects-driven action, and this film certainly has plenty of that. They showed a particular flair for car chases in Matrix Reloaded, and long stretches of this film are nothing but car chases, extended race battles in which drivers in tricked-out cars use gimmicks that are half James Bond’s Q, half Looney Tunes’ Acme to run one another off the road.
Imagine cars that look like spaceships with wheels zooming over the sorts of loop-de-loop-ing plastic tracks of Matchbox playsets, going all Mario Kart on each other. Now imagine it with luminescent kaleidoscopic colors, complete with LSD-like tracers. That’s kind of what the race scenes are like in Speed Racer. And many of the other scenes, too.
This is a movie that will definitely show you things you’ve never seen before, so long as your eyes can stand it and it doesn’t make you sick to your stomach.
The plot centers on young Speed Racer (Hirsch) and his family: pop Pops (John Goodman), mom Mom (Susan Sarandon), tubby little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), chimpanzee Chim Chim, mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) and girlfriend Trixie (Ricci). There was an older brother named Rex too, but he died under mysterious circumstances. The mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox, delivering lines like he was dubbing the cartoon) sure drives like Rex, though, doesn’t he?
Rich industrial-type Royalton (V for Vendetta’s Roger Allam, looking like an evil Al Gore) wants to hire Speed for his racing team, but the Racers see through his salesman act and decide to remain independent, making an enemy of Royalton.
From there, the film is basically a war between crooked race-fixer Royalton and the wholesome Racer family over the soul of racecar driving. The Wachowskis frame this battle as one that’s actually between business and art, an interesting theme for a big-budget summer movie like this. Can racecar driving be art, even if the whole world seems to treat it as a business? What about filmmaking?
Speed Racer seems to answer both questions in the positive.
This is probably the first Hollywood film to embrace anime story-telling conceits to (mostly) live-action filmmaking to such an extent. The ubiquitous speed-lines and anime-style wipes are seen throughout and, hell, kudos to whoever decided to cast Ricci, whose huge eyes and little face make her one of the few human beings that actually look like she was designed by a Japanese animator.
Like the Matrixes (Matrices?) the whole film is informed by an incredible sense of design. Every set, every costume, every object has been carefully thought about and rendered to fit into the neo-retro near-future J-pop paradise of the film.
The cheesiest, most simplistic aspects of the cartoon—from the silly names like Snake Oiler and Inspector Detector, to the occasionally quite stupid dialogue—are all kept completely intact, with only the look of the film and the degree of action heavily modified to reflect the last 40 years of evolution in filmmaking.
In other words, the chassis remains the same, but everything else has been souped-up.