by HELEN GEIB
Speed Racer is an adaptation of a Japanese animated television series of the same name that won a cult following stateside. Its fans include the filmmaking team of The Wachowski Brothers, who made their reputation with The Matrix and began to fritter it away with that movie’s sequels. Their new effort finds them stuck in a holding pattern. As a live action cartoon, Speed Racer is a winner. When it tries to be a disquisition on contemporary societal ills, it spins its wheels at the starting line.
My assessment of Speed Racer is that it was made for the 10 to 17 demographic. (Take that for what it’s worth; having no children, it’s based on fuzzy memories of my own childhood tastes and my observations of other people’s children. Believe me when I say it was not made primarily for adults.) If you’re looking for a summer movie to take the family to, you could do a lot worse than Speed Racer. However, if your kids fall on the young end of that range and you haven’t taken them to Nim’s Island, or they’re teenagers and you’re among the few households that haven’t seen Iron Man, then you have a better option open.
The tightly knit Racer family consists of Speed (Emile Hirsch), racing prodigy and the film’s hero, “Pops” (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), and younger son Spritle, pronounced “Spry-dle” (Paulie Litt). The larger family circle encompasses Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), ace mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), the Racer’s pet monkey, and eventually, brilliant pro racer and fighter for justice Racer X (Matthew Fox). The family is haunted by the tragic death some years prior of eldest son Rex, a racing genius dogged by controversy. The main plot is Speed’s quest to prove his abilities on the racetrack and heal the family’s emotional wounds.
The main plot is cluttered with a subsidiary plot about breaking the evil corporate hegemony controlling racing, and bringing its nefarious top man and his stooges to justice. As I was watching the film I had a nagging feeling that I had seen this movie before. Then I realized it was a re-make of Rollerball. Layering a Rollerball re-make, and moreover a poorly scripted one, onto a determinedly family-friendly movie that is frequently deliberately childish was a major false start for the film.
An example to illustrate the problem: Speed pays a visit to the villain at his corporate headquarters to decline his offer to join the company’s sponsored racing team. Enraged, the villain launches into a long and borderline hysterical speech elaborating the endemic, inevitable, and socially beneficial corruption of the racing world. The speech is intercut- with several breakaways and returns– with a broad comedy sequence for the youngsters in the audience. It features Spritle and the ape gorging themselves on candy, playing air guitar while speeding recklessly in a futuristic sort of golf cart, and assuming the disguise of a lab-coated researcher with the boy as the legs and the ape as the arms. These two films were not meant to meet.
I wrote earlier that Speed Racer was a winner as a live action cartoon. That was not a backhanded compliment. The movie looks great. The futuristic setting is a real world where people can drive in much the same way as within the world of the Matrix, but where everything is vibrant, bright, and candy-colored and no-one wears sunglasses. The racing sequences are entirely CGI, actors against a blue screen creations, but there are no jarring transitions between action scenes and the rest of the movie because there are no visual transitions. The visual aesthetic is all pervasive.
The humans are pleasing to the eyes as well. In addition to Hisch, Ricci, Sarandon, and Fox in the main cast, the principal supporting cast supplies the multi-national eye candy of Korean Rain, Chinese Yu Nan, and German Benno Fuhrmann. Japan’s fine Hiroyuki Sanada is criminally thrown away in a bit part.
Speed Racer’s strengths are the sweetly heartfelt domestic scenes, the racing, and the production design. If the film had been shorter (it clocks in at the finish line at 135 minutes) and the story more firmly focused on the family and the action, it would have been a better time at the track, er, movies.