The Wachowski Brothers, who shot to fame with their highly imaginative monochrome world in The Matrix trilogy, have introduced new colors to their palette with their adaptation of the Japanese cartoon classic, Speed Racer. In fact, they may have introduced all the other colors this time around.
Stylistically owing less to its source material and more to films like Tron and Dick Tracy, movies that rely so heavily on the visuals for design and structure as well as emotional emphasis, Speed Racer is overflowing with artistry, sometimes propelling the story but occasionally at the expense of it.
Referencing Tron, the 1982 Disney cult classic about a video game designer sucked into his own game, is nothing new to Larry and Andy Wachowski; The Matrix is a deeper, darker version of the story and at least at a very fundamental level, there is some carryover in the plot of Speed Racer, as well.
Speed (Emile Hirsch, brilliant in last year’s Into the Wild) grew up around racing. His father (John Goodman) builds cars and his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) is a local legend, thanks to his on-the-track heroics and his untimely death behind the wheel. Now it’s Speed’s turn to put the polish back on the Racer name as one of the last true independents in the World Racing League.
Standing in his way is Royalton (Roger Allam), a kind of evil Richard Branson of the racing world. He tries to coerce Speed into joining his well-connected and very wealthy team, a move that Speed rejects out of loyalty to his family. So Royalton does what villains in movies always do — he plots to ruin the hero. But with the help of Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann) and, of course, Racer X (Matthew Fox), Speed will try to overcome Royalton’s chicanery at speeds in excess of 200 mph.
Speed Racer begins in unforgettable fashion, with the backstory, primarily covering Rex’s death and Speed’s relationship with his older brother, shown through a series of flashbacks from four perspectives while the younger Racer tries to break Rex’s record at the local track. Within fifteen minutes, the Wachowskis introduce the major characters and themes while orchestrating an exciting, completely computer generated race.
Obviously, there is another pivotal race that provides the finale, and it’s equally addictive. But much of the action in between is too childlike, even for a movie meant for family viewing. There seems to be a lack of consistency between the overall movement of Speed Racer as a fairly serious experience and its campier elements.
So fitting some of the lighter, more memorable facets of the original cartoon into what aspires to be a heavier film – or at least what works better and more often as a heavier film – is the constant struggle for the Wachowskis. In fact, some of the film’s best moments don’t involve the hyperkinetic computer animation that makes Speed Racer a $100 million investment; John Goodman has a handful of terrific father-son scenes with Hirsch that would grab hold of you in any movie. Likewise, Hirsch goes a couple rounds with Fox and Susan Sarandon, playing his doting mother, that have as much impact as any of the individual visual effects.
Having said that, Speed Racer is ultimately an effects movie, and as that goes, it’s a damn good one. Don’t even bother trying to calculate what’s real and what’s computer generated in each scene. The animation is so intricately and seamlessly integrated that unless it absolutely looks otherworldly, like the racing scenes, you wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
There is still a bit too much racing at you in Speed Racer, however. At a little bit over two hours, the overwhelming density of the colors, the velocity of the racing scenes, and those oddly out of place moments of comic relief combine to make the film like a rich dessert you just can’t finish.
Starring Emile Hirsch, John Goodman and Matthew Fox
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski