When "Speed Racer" first appeared on the scene in the mid 1960s as a Japanese anime-inspired television cartoon series, I had already graduated from college and felt I was beyond such childish things. Since then, I've still not watched a complete episode of the old series nor any of the subsequent shows. As such, I came to the Wachowski brothers' 2008 "Speed Racer" movie with a clean and, I hope, unbiased slate (disregarding my familiarity with their "Matrix" trilogy), neither a fan nor a detractor but an innocent bystander. It was for the better. I admit I had a degree of resistance to the movie, but I tried to keep an open mind. As a result I came away more impressed than I thought I would be, at least with the look of the film. Maybe it's all flash and little substance, but there's no denying that flash.
The Wachowskis, Andy and Larry, updated the old cartoon by making their new movie a combination of live action and CGI animation. Even though the two styles don't always mesh, in the racing sequences they look impressive enough. It's like watching a neon-glowing, slot-car racing video game, full of bright lights, nonstop action, and crashes galore. In this regard, it ought to delight old fans of the series, and even I found myself fascinated by all the color and excitement.
In between the racing sequences, however, things are different. The plot is simplistic and intentionally clichéd. Apparently, all the familiar characters from the series are here, but the story line seems a mere afterthought to string the races together.
Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, the kid who grew up dreaming about cars. Hirsch looks the part and does his best with a boyish charm. Christina Ricci plays his longtime girlfriend, Trixie, and she's a doll. Indeed, with her big eyes and short, dark hair she not only resembles the cartoon Trixie but the older cartoon Betty Boop. And I mean that in a purely complimentary way; Ms. Ricci is wonderfully attractive in the role.
John Goodman plays Pops Racer, Speed's father, who designs and builds racing cars. Susan Sarandon plays Mom Racer, Speed's mother. Both actors lend a dignity to the movie and a needed heart. Paulie Litt plays Spritle Racer, Speed's mischievous little brother, who loves candy above all else. Scott Porter plays Rex Racer, Speed's older brother, who died in a horrible racing-car crash some years earlier. Matthew Fox plays Racer X, a mysterious do-gooder driver. Kick Gurry plays Sparky, the Racer team's mechanic. Richard Roundtree plays a former champion driver, now an announcer. And Roger Allum plays E.P. Arnold Royalton, the rich, greedy president of an evil corporation that wants Speed to race for them. There are other players as well, too numerous to mention in a cast that outweighs the production needs, all of it indicative of the film's overall bloat.
The actors do their part, but it's really the special effects, the CGI graphics that surround everyone all the time, that stand out in the show. In order to connect the dots, the script has the iniquitous corporations manipulating all the races and drivers, with the pure-hearted Racer family out to buck the corruption. To be honest, while it is all fairly simplistic, as I said, there were times in the film when I found myself lost in the plot web of money and power grabs. It was like the Wachowskis' final two "Matrix" films, where even though you knew basically what was going on, they kind of left you behind on occasion. Maybe the Wachowskis need to learn to tell a simple story more simply; I dunno.
The filmmakers link the new movie to the old TV series by anchoring it to the past and the future at the same time. Clothing, hair, and furniture styles remain in the mid 1960s, while cars, architecture, and technology look to some indefinite time to come.
Speed's Mach 5 racing car should impress fans. It resembles the one in the cartoon, but the filmmakers bring it to life in full scale and in animation. The races themselves appear very cartoonish, intentionally cartoonish, with the tracks simulating not only today's video games but older slot-car layouts, especially the elaborate ones so popular in the Sixties. (I had an old friend whose father once owned a slot-car operation back then in a building that formerly had been a grocery store. It was a massive arrangement of tracks, overpasses, scenery, and accessories, and the movie reminded me of it a lot.) The filmmakers light everything in glowing colors and pump up the sound to the threshold of pain to ensure we don't take our eyes off the screen for a moment.
I admit the racing sections are fun to watch. There's the opening race; then the centerpiece Casa Cristo Classic, where it's not so much a race as a demolition derby in the desert; followed at the end by the World Racing League Grand Prix. These three races take up maybe half the film, and they are really the only parts I felt I needed to watch. Otherwise, the film is way too long. At 135 minutes, it's at least twice as long as it should be.
Most of "Speed Racer" is remarkably silly, and other parts are almost indecipherable, but forget all that. It's the graphics and lights and crashes and bells and whistles and little else that count. What's more, there's the music. Even though I've practically never seen the old TV show, I instantly recognized the "Speed Racer" theme song. Amazing, and kind of fun in itself.
The Wachowskis shot the movie digitally, using various types of digital cameras and, of course, they use a good deal of CGI animation. It all shows up quite intensely in this 2.40:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen picture. The colors are particularly bright and intense, maybe too bright and intense even for a cartoon movie. Black levels are equally strong, setting off everything else a bit glaringly but appropriately. And definition is also pretty good for a standard-def digital release, with only a very small and expected degree of blur.
The best part of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is its surround characteristics. Cars race around the room at full throttle and fireworks explode from literally all directions. The midrange and high end do their part as well, although I rather missed the bass being as deep as I would have liked. With strong dynamics and admirable clarity, the sound fulfills its function in creating as much excitement as the visuals do in the film.
Along with the movie, we get two featurettes. The first is "Spritle in the Big Leagues," a fourteen-minute, behind-the-scenes tour of the movie set with actor Paulie Litt, who doesn't say much but lets screen inserts speak for him. The second featurette is "Speed Racer Supercharged," about fifteen minutes on the history of the cars and racetracks of the WRL.
In addition to the featurettes, the set includes instructions on how to download a Windows Media digital copy of the film; thirty scene selections; previews of other Warner Bros. products at start-up only; an attractive slipcover; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
"Speed Racer" seems to me a perfect movie for use with the "Next" button on your remote. It practically begs you to watch the racing sequences and skip over the stuff in between. In this regard, it's a low-octane version of "Grand Prix," where the competition was terrific but the connecting melodrama slowed everything down. So, if you just play the opening race, the Casa Cristo 5000, and the closing Grand Prix, you'll get a lot of enjoyment out of "Speed Racer."