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Speed Racer   D+

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: The Wachowski Brothers
Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Benno Fürmann, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rain, Richard Roundtree.

Review by Rob Vaux

I don't pretend to be an expert on Speed Racer, the 40-year-old manga/import cartoon about a plucky young race-car driver and his supremely annoying family. But by all accounts, directors Andy and Larry Wachowski are deeply steeped in the minutia of his world and their new big-screen adaptation of his adventures is true to that ethos. I have no reason to doubt the film's authenticity or ability to meet the expectations of any die-hard fans out there. It certainly looks appropriately cartoonish and the corny jokes they pass off with a straight face could only stem from early-'70s Saturday-morning filler.

But as a movie, Speed Racer makes very little effort to involve anyone who isn't a fan. It wants us to embrace its Day-Glo alternate universe of full-sized Hot Wheels cars without providing a single reason why we should. Its actors serve as living props, placed against a green screen and asked to deliver simplistic emotions devoid of depth or purpose. They are immersed in a labyrinthine plot requiring periodic fits of dull exposition... which never changes the fact that it's basically all about cars going really fast around candy-colored slot tracks. Every character can be defined in a few easily digestible words. Speed (Emile Hirsch) loves racing. His girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) loves Speed. Mom (Susan Sarandon) loves Speed too, while Pops (John Goodman) loves building cars that Speed can drive. Little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) loves candy. And Speed. And his psychotically infuriating chimpanzee Chim-Chim, who wears overalls and flings poo at the bad guys. There are a lot bad guys, all of whom hate Speed and view racing as nothing more than business. But Speed is really, really good at racing, and he'll show them that plucky individuals really can stand up to their corporate greed (a message coming, once again, in the service of corporate greed). He gets some help from the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who likes to lurk in the shadows and brood a lot, and from a bevy of disposable supporting players who basically exist in order to acknowledge the particulars of the old TV show.

That's ostensibly part of the appeal, I suppose, and real humanity clearly has no place here. The Wachowskis dedicate themselves less to the stakes of each race or the impact on Speed and his family if he should lose than the visual kinetics of the world itself. Never has the phrase "live-action cartoon" been more appropriate, and that's not an entirely bad thing. Certainly Speed Racer's palate has a brilliant visual kick, marked by eye-popping primary colors cribbed liberally from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. The race tracks feature impossible bends and slot-car loop-the-loops, while everyone's outfits are color-coordinated to match the surrounding decor. The texture gives it all an appreciable internal consistency, and actors like Ricci -- with her big, beautiful eyes and page-boy hairdo -- evoke the artistic sensibilities of anime in ways which no green-screen special effect ever could. In that sense, if nowhere else, Speed Racer succeeds at its task.

At the same time, all that CGI beggars the question of why one would want to remake this as a live-action piece at all. Why go through so much trouble if it's practically animated anyway? To reach a larger audience, of course, and to let Warners hold the line until Batman gets here in July. But that requires a fairly broad appeal, and the Wachowskis show no interest in initiating anyone who isn't already a part of the club. The flabby subplots and throwaway characters crowd the screen in force: each requiring more desiccated explanations to cover their presence, then delivering extremely little to justify the attention. The racing scenes, too, suffer from diminishing returns, hampered by the same depressing lack of pacing that doomed the last two Matrix movies. Yes, they're flashy and kinetic and exhaustively paced. But beyond the CGI backgrounds, they're largely identical: the big finale is essentially the same as the race which begins the film, leaving no dramatic buildup and fewer reasons to invest ourselves emotionally.

And in terms of spectacle, the film just doesn't know when to back off. The Wachowskis dogpile the viewer with strobe-light intensity, adopting pointless editing tricks to keep every scene moving at a seizure-inducing pace. Talking characters slide back and forth in front of the incidents they describe while random chronological leaps fragment the narrative in an effort to cover up its supreme banality. It goes without saying that the figures we're supposed to care about vanish beneath the gargantuan sets and carefully sculpted pop-art imagery. But by trying to convince us that we're having a good time even as it pounds us senseless, Speed Racer moves beyond mediocrity and into the realm of active irritant.

One could argue, perhaps, that it's all some kind of impressionistic satire: that they're trying to deconstruct the bombast of other event pictures by reveling in the shallowness of it all. That doesn't hold water in light of the production's loving dedication to its source material or the disturbingly straight way that the actors play it all. (Hirsch, however, does deserve a pat on the back for successfully delivering the line "Inspector Detector suspects something.") The midnight-movie circuit may be kinder to it than its current placement in the thick of the multiplex; eventually, it might eke out the same sense of beloved kitsch that The Goonies delivered a generation ago. But let those future filmgoers slog through 135 minutes of light and noise in search of real entertainment. Those of us in the here and now have a number of superior options, and the faster Speed Racer makes way for them, the better.

Review published 05.10.2008.

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