[6.2/10] Speed Racer captures the feeling of a cartoon in live action better than any movie that came before it, and arguably better than any movie in the decade since its release. The Wachowskis, who both wrote and directed the movie, took the visual sense of unreality they deployed to such great effect in The Matrix, and use it not to evoke the sense of a man breaking through the limits of an artificial world, but rather to create a world where those stretched limits and cartoon physics are a part of the outsized-yet-everyday lives of their characters.
The trend du jour has been to use CGI to try to make the impossible seem real, but the kinks in that system end up making those computer-generated additions to a nominally genuine setting come off all the more fake. Speed Racer eschews that problem by turning that unreality into an aesthetic. The Wachowskis aren’t trying to convince you that any of what you’re seeing is real. Instead, they revel in the utter artificiality of the visual presentation -- where the world is green-screened, overstuffed, impossibly bright, and stylized to all hell -- that preserves the rubber band reality of animation in a live action setting.
With that, they manage to turn a flaw that’s felled more than a few blockbuster (most notably the Star Wars prequels) into a deliberate stylistic choice that their film leans into. By embracing the phony sense of the pre-viz spectacle, they make that a part of their film rather than a flaw in it.
That doesn't stop the world of Speed Racer from feeling like a cinematic attack on your eyeballs at times. In keeping with that cartoon aesthetic, the film is overwhelmingly colorful from the word go, with hot pinks, neon greens, and everything in between filling the frame at all times. The racing sequences in particular are an assault on the sense, an onslaught of sound and spectacle that can occasionally devolve into static, but which exists to be loud and proud.
On that front, the film never really tops its opening sequence -- part race, part backstory, that blends the history of the title character and his family into a psychological race against the ghost of his dead brother that mixes and matches the visual splendor and character motivation of the past and the present with supreme if garish virtuosity. But it tries, with a handful of other races, each with its own plot and character-based objective and flavor, each with the same sort of overwhelming tsunami of sight and sound meant to smack your brain with color and splendor.
True to a movie about racing, the film is constantly in motion. Certain scenes look like they churn the frame rate up, clips are edited together to keep the pace zipping as fast as the cars are, and talking head wipes between sequences ensure that there’s some form of busy visual continuity between each moment.
I don’t love every minute of this, but you have to give the Wachowskis credit for originality in the look and feel of the film. There’s a distinctiveness in the approach and in the final product that makes good on all the loony, exaggerated atmosphere of a 1960s cartoon in a different medium.
The problem is that the storytelling and themes in the film are just as cartoonish. Speed Racer dabbles in a bog standard idealism vs. cynicism and slobs vs. snobs conflict. The engine of the film (if you’ll pardon the expression) has to do with Speed Racer deciding whether or not to sign with Royalton, a well-heeled sponsor with a Willy Wonka-like business center, or stick with his dad’s small town team run out of his parents’ garage, and the fall out from his decision. And at the same time, Speed and his family are still mourning the death of his older brother, who walked (or drove) down a similar path and never came back from it.
This leads to various plot machinations that naturally involve racing and defending against multi-colored skullduggery to combat, and to a lot of heavy-handed conversations about why it’s worth doing what you’re passionate about even if you fear it’s been monetized and commodified to all hell. There’s a lot of generic “for the love of the game” material in this, especially in the shadow of a superficial takedown of business and power as twin evils on the other side. There’s a laudable sense of optimism at the film’s core, but its ideas are reduced to the broadest clichés and lose most of their power in the translation.
The same goes for the emotional contingent of the film. The death of Rex Racer looms large in Speed Racer, and is meant to provide the emotional ballast to the broader passion vs. money contrast the film wants to draw. But Emile Hirsch is too flat as the protagonist to pull that off, and nearly everyone else in the movie is too much of a caricature for those ideas to land in a personal way.
The twin exceptions are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, who play Speed Racer’s parents and allies. The Wachowskis are smart enough to call on Sarandon and Goodman to do the emotional heavy lifting in the film. And in just a handful of one-on-one scenes between each of them and the protagonist, they manage to provide Speed Racer with its only bits of earned feeling, which are so good that they’re almost, but not quite, able to salvage the film’s attempts at sentiment.
The broad storytelling hurts that effort, but worse yet is the fact that Speed Racer has the sense of humor of a five-year-old. That brand of comedy mostly comes from Speed’s little brother Spirtles along with his pet monkey Chim Chim. Their gags and taunts are broad and zany to the point of second-hand embarrassment, and can only prompt groans by the time the third act starts. The efforts at comic relief are abortive, and contribute to the overall broadness of the film’s storytelling and characters that hurts its ability to get a chuckle or empathy out of anyone not in elementary school.
Still, that’s the best thing you can say for Speed Racer. It is as faithful a live action adaptation of a 1960s cartoon is ever going to be, for good and for ill. It’s like Mario Kart by way of Hairspray with a dash of Tim Burton thrown in for good measure, with visual sequences that are creatively realized and a setting that is immediately unreal but vividly so, like a Saturday morning special just burst into three-dimensions. But sadly, the films characters and ideas can’t boast nearly that many dimensions, with scant more shading than their four-color predecessors.
That keeps Speed Racer from reaching higher heights, but it’s still an impressive achievement in translating the limitless potential of animation from one medium to another, even if it’s one that, in the final tally, I admire more than I actually like.
I haven't had acid, but I expect this is similar to the experience.It's filled with hammy acting, hard to follow action and constantly made me reevaluate my life choices.But somehow I got invested in the plot with the Anti-Corporate theme.
Often feels like Speed Racer in an episode of Lazy Town. Speed Racer still in under-rated. The Wackowskis formally known as brothers do a fine job bringing anime to the big screen. Dragonball would have been in better hands if they did it.Still, not all of their approach works and you might get bored of it's non-stop energy by the middle of it.
Well that is how you make anime with real actors. Only thing missing was upskirt pantyshots :D
Go speed racer