Filmmaking siblings Andy and Larry Wachowski earned a high degree of coolness when their film The Matrix debuted in 1999. However, they lost a lot of that coolness with two bloated, self-indulgent sequels - The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions - that permanently tarnished the legacy of the original in the eyes of many moviegoers (and I include myself here). As far as I'm concerned, the Wachowskis have earned a little bit of that coolness back with Speed Racer, their adaptation of the popular imported anime series. While it's no masterpiece, it was at least made in the spirit of fun and invention, unlike the dourness that helped sink the second and third parts of the Matrix trilogy.
Let me issue this caveat from the start: I wasn't allowed to watch "Speed Racer" as a kid. My parents thought it was too violent. Going into this picture, I had only the most perfunctory knowledge of the program. Whether die-hard fans will be satisfied with the picture is not for me to say; I can only talk about it as a "newbie."
Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) stars as the title character, a futuristic racecar driver who has never gotten over the death of his brother/hero, who was also a racer. Speed drives for a small, independent team run by his father Pops (John Goodman). He is wooed by a large corporation, Royalton Industries, whose head honcho and namesake (Roger Allam) promises riches beyond Speed's wildest dreams. Although the offer is tempting, Speed chooses to stay independent. This sets off Royalton's dark side. He threatens to ruin Pops' business in a variety of underhanded manners, and he also threatens to crush Speed. It turns out that most of the big races, including the prestigious Grand Prix, are rigged in order to boost the profits of the conspirators. In other words, Speed will never be a champion if he crosses Royalton.
But hey - if he stopped there, this wouldn't be much of a movie, would it? Speed determines that he will win the Grand Prix and bring Royalton to his knees. In order to do this, however, he must qualify, which means participating in a series of preliminary races, some of which are quite dangerous. Speed finds a sympathetic ally in the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who wears a mask and scowls a lot. Together, they devise a plan to make Speed eligible for the big event. Assisting them in this plan are Pops, Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon), and Speed's girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). Trixie's special skill is to fly above the courses in a helicopter and alert Speed to upcoming dangers.
It is difficult to describe the visual style of Speed Racer, which is a shame because the visual style is everything. This is one of the most CGI-heavy movies I've ever seen. The special effects aren't just wall-to-wall, they're wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. The whole film is done in bright primary colors, almost as if someone blew up a crayon factory. The action rarely progresses in a static shot; the camera is always moving, or swooping in and out, or meshing disparate images together in the frame. Sometimes we see an actor's face on screen while everything behind him/her is a colored blur, mimicking an anime technique that's still used today in shows like "Pokemon." Aside from an emotional sequence between Speed and his mother, I can't think of a single "normal" shot in the whole picture.
What I loved about Speed Racer is that the Wachowski brothers didn't even try to make it look realistic. Even the racing scenes - with cars flipping in the air, making impossible turns, and utilizing various battle gizmos - go far beyond the already-exaggerated things we see in most other modern CGI-laden films. Speed Racer blows past exaggeration into the area of the sublime. It genuinely does look like a piece of Japanese anime come vividly to life. I found that fascinating, especially since the visuals get increasingly imaginative as the story progresses. Movies like Batman Begins and Spider-Man have looked like comic books come to life, but this is the first time I've really seen the same effect with anime. It's almost hypnotic.
Here's where it gets tricky. Because Speed Racer so completely overdoses on visual effects, the plot is paper-thin and the characters are cardboard. Oftentimes, that is a major source of irritation for me. Yet, in this case, I wasn't bothered by it because that is completely an intentional style choice. The Wachowskis know the plot and characters are thin, and they've designed it that way on purpose. They do it with a wink, almost as if to say, we know this cartoon wasn't Shakespeare, so why pretend that it was? Maybe some viewers will hate that about the film, but personally I just kind of accepted it in that spirit.
Besides, even if the actors do not have 3-dimensional characters to play, they all manage to find a way to be, well, cartoonish. With her pixie haircut, affected squeaky voice, and naturally wide eyes, Christina Ricci actually looks like an anime creation that has taken human form. Matthew Fox, meanwhile, plays Racer X with such intense seriousness that it borders on being camp. (A solid choice, in my opinion.) And Goodman has had some practice at this, having once played Fred Flintstone. Emile Hirsch has less to do; Speed is kind of a rubber-stamp do-gooder, yet he's still effective in the limited confines of the role.
Speed Racer is definitely aimed at kids. It carries a mild PG rating. There are a lot of scenes showing the antics of Speed's little brother Spritle (the hilarious Paulie Litt) and his monkey pal Chim Chim. They provide much of the story's humor (which is surprisingly funny). Fans hoping for a more hardcore version of their beloved property may be gravely disappointed in how "kiddie" the film often is. However, the advance screening I attended was filled with families, and the children in the crowd were extremely vocal about their enthusiasm. I consider myself nothing if not a big kid, so I shared their excitement to a less-vocal degree.
What it comes down to for me is that, while not earth-shatteringly great, Speed Racer was really fun and really different. I loved the visual style. The gimmicky racing scenes were extremely clever. The actors look like cartoon characters and perform the same way. The silly jokes made me laugh. Honestly, I have no clue what other people with think of this picture; I suspect some will like it and others will hate it with a passion. Speed Racer kind of requires you to be open to its indulgences. Then again, those indulgences are what make it such a good time.
( out of four)
I thought Speed Racer got a bum deal in theaters, and I hope people discover it on DVD. While no masterpiece, it's definitely fun and visually astouding. The movie arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on Sept. 16.
The extras on the DVD are disappointing. While I didn't expect an audio commentary or deep behind-the-scenes features from the notoriously camera-shy Wachowskis, I nevertheless figured that there would be extensive coverage of the film's colorful special effects. Sadly, they are nowhere to be found (which suggests an eventual DVD "double dip"). What's here is pretty bland. The first of two 15-minute mini-docs is "Spritle in the Big Leagues," which finds young Paulie Litt touring the production offices, including art design, animal wrangling, computer effects, and so on. A lot of ground is covered in a short period of time, meaning that nothing is particularly in-depth. If you're a die-hard DVD bonus feature viewer (like I am), you will learn absolutely nothing. Young kids may find the approach suits their short attention spans.
The other feature is "Speed Racer: Supercharged" which plays like a car commercial and rattles off the fictional mechanics of the story's fictional automobiles, along with brief driver bios and course descriptions. Even at only 15 minutes, this feature is too long, and the rote recitation of car parts quickly grows tiresome. I've seen lackluster movies that were marginally redeemed on DVD by the inclusion of solid extras. Speed Racer is an example of a better-than-you-heard-it-was movie that, feature-wise, leaves you wanting more.
The Blu-Ray release will have a bit more, including "Speed Racer Crucible Challenge," which is an immersive DVD driving game, and "Car-Fu Cinema," a behind-the-scenes look at the revolutionary moviemaking process. This review is of the regular DVD, so I cannot comment on the quality of these features.
Disappointing bonuses or not, Speed Racer deserves a second chance on DVD.
Speed Racer is rated PG for sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 16 minutes.
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