Speed Racer, some of you will recall, was a proto-anime cartoon, exported from Japan and dubbed for the amusement of American kids such as myself back in the '60s. Oh, how I loved Speed Racer and his supercool racing car, the Mach 5! Apparently Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) loved them too - but maybe not in the same way I did. For the record, I am no longer giving the Wachowskis the benefit of the doubt. I still think The Matrix was brilliant. I still think everything they've done since has kinda sucked.
But back to Speed Racer: As they have done before, the Wachowskis have blended live action and computer-generated imagery to create a pretty cool-looking movie. Speed Racer is more or less a computer-animated movie with live actors in it. The colors are supersaturated and bright, but this is nothing that you haven't seen before if you have ever had to spend any time watching Playhouse Disney and Nickelodeon, where the visual cortexes of young children are desensitized to a video world as colorful as a bag of fluorescent jellybeans. The movie's visuals have a kicky, Pop Art-plus-PlayStation kinda thing going on: Everything zips and zooms and twirls and blurs, and none of it really makes a lot of sense; but it keeps on moving fast anyway, because if you don't stop, you don't have to stop and think. I do not recommend Speed Racer for people who are prone to migraines or seizures, as I'm pretty sure this movie could induce either after about three minutes. Remember the infamous Pokémon episode that supposedly sent hundreds of Japanese children to the hospital with seizures? Child's play compared to Speed Racer.
So, superbright colors: check. Fast cars: check. Plot? Boy howdy, Speed Racer has plot to burn (and I would recommend burning, in this case). At two-and-a-quarter hours, this movie is an endurance test comparable to the Paris-to-Dakar Rally: You get the sore butt, but no prize for finishing it. How can a movie with so much visual pizzazz be so boring?
Speed (Emile Hirsch) races cars for his family business, Racer Motors. He idolizes his older brother Rex, who died - although is body was never recovered - during an off-road race following some family drama involving Pops Racer (John Goodman). This we learn in a series of flashbacks. Mom (Susan Sarandon) is endlessly supportive of young Speed and all her boys. Little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) idolizes big brother Speed, and gets into mischief with his chimpanzee chum Chim Chim. And then there's Speed's gal pal Trixie (Christina Ricci), who bats her eyes and tries to get Speed to move to first base - but he's too busy zooming around the racetrack. The movie's best character is the Mach 5, a pretty darn cool car that can hop and spin and drive sideways and go real fast.
The car races in the movie are like a crazy hyperspeed combination of Formula One racing and demolition derby. Crashing-and-burning is pretty commonplace. Maybe that's because the cars in Speed Racer mostly drive sideways - kinda like all those cars in commercials that are always skidding sideways to make you think that they're really cool cars, instead of terrifyingly unsafe death traps. Personally, I like my car to go fast; but primarily forwards and backwards. I've had little need for sideways driving in my life, and I'll stick to my guns that the shortest distance (and therefore the fastest route) between two points is a straight line. But sticklers for physics and the laws of nature will need to check their kooky preconceptions about gravity and centrifugal force at the cineplex door if they're gonna make it through Speed Racer without suffering a cerebral blowout. Apparently driving frontwise is for chumps; skidding sideways is how the true racers do it.
Anyhoo, Speed wins a race and attracts the attention of a lot of corporate dirtbag types who want him to sign up and sell out. Most persuasive is Royalton (Roger Allum), who makes him an offer he can't refuse. He refuses it anyway, which gets Racer Motors into hot water. So Speed is recruited by the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann), who want to crack open the shady world of corporate sponsorship and crime rings and fixed races and whatnot. Speed and Racer X and fellow racer Taejo Togokahn (South Korean star Rain) enter the Casa Christo off-road race - the very same race in which big brother Rex Racer mysteriously died. Cue ominous music.
After the climactic finish of the grueling, action-packed, extremely fatal Casa Christo race, the oversaturated and enervated viewer would be right to think that it was time to kick back and watch the credits roll by. Not so fast there, chump! There's another big race to be won. And then another... no, that's really it, but it feels like the movie will never end.
The actors are pretty much adrift in Speed Racer. It's probably really hard to act in a movie where most of the sets and all of the action are happening in a computer somewhere, and you're just standing in front of a green screen. This is likely the kind of thing that gives Method actors wake-up-screaming nightmares. So I hesitate to blame the actors for the shallowness of the characterizations in Speed Racer. The lousy, beyond-cartoonish dialogue must also be blamed; and if the movie's script and dialogue and wooden acting are intentionally crummy in order to imitate the original cartoon...well, that's an artistic gamble that doesn't pay off.
Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) is a good actor, but he looks completely lost in Speed Racer - even when he's not driving a pretend car and is actually interacting with other actors. His Speed is a natural-born driver, a boy who is one with his vehicle; but he's otherwise hollow inside, like a racecar with no driver behind the wheel. By contrast, Allum, in a scenery-chewing performance, manages to chew the virtual scenery just fine.
Speed Racer is supposed to be a family movie. It's all about the family, love and loyalty and father/son bonding and death by piranha and all that. Plus, the entire Racer family cheers like mad every time a car crashes and explodes into a massive fireball - as long as it's not one of their cars. Good, clean, brightly colored fun.