Young Speed Racer has always had a big dream of being the greatest racer in the world and living up to the high standards set by his father in the production of racing cars and his older brother, Rex. As Speed has gotten older, he’s able to face that dream, though he believes his brother Rex to have been killed living out his dream. Now Speed and his family have the chance to be part of a huge racing conglomerate, Royalton Industries, but he turns it down, because even though he knows it could be a big personal gain, in the end it’s at the expense of what he and his family believe in with this sport. Speed ends up being recruited by a secret agency to root out the corruption and at the same time, bring back some glory to the sport.
Speed Racer is the latest film from The Wachowski Brothers (at the time they were still brothers anyway) who of course gave us The Matrix trilogy, and were executive producers of the adaptation of V For Vendetta. With Speed Racer their goal was to make a family film but something that pushed their own filmmaking skills in some new directions. And while Speed Racer certainly has it’s roots in other films (I’m thinking things like Flash Gordon, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and damn near anything that Tim Burton does) it goes further than any of those ever did (no doubt by technological advancements) literally making a live-action anime that’s a sight and sound sensory overload. I can honestly say, I’ve never seen anything quite like this from American filmmakers before.
And all the while, they do it by staying true to their source material. For many of us, the original animated Speed Racer was our first exposure to Japanese animation (or anime for those that don’t know the term) and I know as a kid weened on cartoons from Warner Brothers, Filmation and Hanna-Barbera, it was something totally new and exciting. Looking back at the cartoon now, it’s hokey and corny, and the movie certainly replicates that and even though, it’s visually and aurally amped up by a factor of ten, at it’s core, it’s absolutely true to it, even maintaining the innocence that I got from it.
Now I really enjoyed this, but it’s not without a criticism and mine is that it’s a little too long. The Wachowskis do their best to keep it all moving at a rapid clip, even employing a new editing style that has it’s own rhythm to it, but still this probably could’ve been shortened by a good ten or fifteen minutes (right now the movie weighs in at 2 hours and 15 minutes long).
The Wachowskis have a good solid cast here, with Emile Hirsch in the title role and backed up by Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Matthew Fox amongst others. And while no one here is going to win any awards for what they’ve done, I have to give them credit for fully handing themselves over to the Wachowskis and trusting in their vision. I could see for a lot of people as a bone of contention being the characters of Speed’s little brother Spritle and his pet monkey Chim-Chim, and yet again, they’re true to the cartoon- sometimes you just hate them, sometimes they’re as funny as can be and sometimes their humor is just the pure groaner variety, but that was the same way as it was in the source as well. I really like the cast and give special kudos to both Sarandon and Goodman for some bit of weight here, especially Goodman who’s no stranger to playing an over-the-top character by any means. He’s played Fred Flinstone and any number of his characters that he’s done for the Coen Brothers can just as easily be seen as living cartoons, and Pops Racer is just another notch in his repertoire, but still he’s fun and it sure looked like he had fun here (at least to me).
Now with all this said, and again I really enjoyed this (though I’ll certainly grant that I was predisposed to as well- this was the one that I was most looking forward to seeing this season just to see what new stuff the Wachowskis had in mind), I find this hard to recommend unless you’re really, really open to it. There’s so many strikes against it as far as a general audience goes, that if you’re coming into it with any sort of bias against it, there’s everything there to feed into it- there’s the anime angle, there’s the CGI angle, there’s it’s explosion of color, there’s the corniness and there’s the whole thing that many have against the Wachowskis for the second and third Matrix films (and I’m not one of them, I’m pretty much ready to go toe-to-toe with any one that hates those movies at any time). So seriously, if you have that anti-bias on any of those levels, stay home, don’t bother. But if you’re open to some new stuff and if you’re a fan of the original cartoon (corniness and all), I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to see it in a theatre. And I was lucky enough to see this in a room with digital projection as well, so the experience was even better, actually seeing this in a way that will be even better than what I could have at home.
I’m expecting this one to be pretty polarizing, and can already picture the critics on the weekend movie shows (Ebert & Roeper and Reel Talk just chopping this one up in a big way), but I thought it was a lot of fun and look forward to watching it again and again when it makes it’s way home.