“Have any of these drivers read the rulebook?”
Speed Racer becomes a colorful, chaotic mess pretty quickly as co-directors/writers Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix) miss the lucrative younger audience with a very long two hour and 15 minute running time. These talented filmmaking brothers succeed in satisfying the older, hard core fans with a colorful kaleidoscope and an immense cast of international stars, nods to the original television series, and countless pop culture references.
The Dick Tracy-like colors really stand out, but some of the beginning sequences (e.g. Rex driving a young Speed back to the family house) look more like a video game than a film. Shot mostly with “green screen” backgrounds, the special effects takes the Mach 5 driver's seat… and most of the film’s large budget as well. The visual world of Speed Racer has some limited appeal. The film has little depth of field , low diffusion, and everything seems in focus all the time. This crystal clear view helps sell the fantasy aspects of the movie by breaking from more conventional techniques.
Emile Hirsch plays the hero Speed Racer and Christina Ricci plays his loyal girlfriend, Trixie. Hirsch and Ricci make a good couple as do Speed’s Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman). Speed gets sandwiched between older brother Rex Racer, played by Scott Porter, and younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) with his trusty chimpanzee Chim Chim. Roger Allam plays a corporate mogul named Royalton who tries to recruit Speed into his realm of the World Racing League. Matthew Fox has the perfect voice and chin for the mysterious Racer X. International actors from various countries round out the remaining supporting cast: Germany (Inspector Detector and Jeanne, Royalton’s talent manager), Australia (Sparks, Speed’s mechanic) and Korea (Taejo Togokhan). Even Richard Roundtree makes a small appearance as legendary racer Ben Burns right after the film’s weakest edit.
The Wachowski Brothers use several close-up shots and give prominence to the racing announcer segments. Rapid-fire dialogue and action can approach quickly, but most audiences won’t fall behind. Nothing really deep in theme, just know that a loving family defeats a greedy corporation any time… at least in the movie world. Other elements, like the pure connection with one's car, which only repeat themselves as flimsy, convenient life lessons later in the film, could’ve been easily cut to reduce the overall running time. Decent sound features include a music score from Michael Giacchino while the Mach 5’s frequent car flip sounds like Curly’s classic “nyuk,nyuk, nyuk” expression from The Three Stooges' movies.
Filmmakers attempt to balance the PG rating for younger viewers and the older hard core fans… the older fans win most of the time. More conventional elements of the plot build on family and good morals, which boost the appeal to younger, more general audiences. The Racer family promotes honesty, honor, and support, especially when Speed needs some help during the rally races. This sequence also includes some baffling, but mildly funny ninja (or “Non-ja”) attacks which bring the family even closer. The fighting sequences basically play off kung fu fantasies. Filmmakers use the snow to trace fighting movements just like they use neon-like lighting to trace car movements. The “rules don’t mean squat” when someone with integrity tries to rule the sport and spoil everybody’s fame-grabbing and money-making schemes.
Filmmakers also try a balance between fantasy and the authentic sport of racing. This film doesn’t really capture the magic of racing until the ending Grand Prix sequence, though the 5000-mile rally racing segment has a nice, epic start. The hyper speed excitement of the Grand Prix crowd diverts your attention away from eyebrow movements and forehead wrinkles, but you still can’t really see what’s going on. As Speed slowly flicks his earlobes as he finally takes off his helmet to hear the roaring sounds, audiences can finally rest… and exit after a marathon of largely unfulfilling entertainment.
This movie is a rare feast for Speed Racer and Japanese pop culture fans, but most general audiences will likely let this one race on by. Recommended with several reservations and rated PG for action, violence, and language. Based on the 1960s cartoon series created by Tatsuo Yoshida. The ending does leave a sequel possibility open. Due to a lackluster third place U.S. opening weekend, another installment looks extremely unlikely — until you consider the international box office tallies (see The Golden Compass).