The good news is that the Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extraordinary to watch. As with their breakthrough The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feeling that you’re seeing something new; not just emergent technologies but a whole new style of moviemaking. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much new. Why undertake such huge effort and expense just to replicate the essence of a poorly written and cheaply animated TV series that no one, not even the geekiest anime otaku (fanboy), really misses? This film might have been so much better if they had jettisoned the baggage of the intellectual property (a misnomer in this case) and told an original story in this radical new style.
The movie incarnation of Speed Racer has inherited the visual quirks of the original 1960s cartoon, cross-bred with the information-rich computerized motion graphics of modern televised sports. The color scheme is dominated by bright, primary colors like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before computer graphics and digital color grading). Talking heads laterally pan across the screen, usually redundantly narrating the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watching ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.
The film is also modeled after video games and anime in general. Huge sequences are entirely computer generated, with what little live action photography there is most likely shot against greenscreen soundstages. The Wachowskis’ resident special effects mad scientist John Gaeta meticulously stages the many incredible car chases like battles in a war movie from an alternate universe. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogies, the movie practically is animated. Just watching it, it’s possible to imagine what the tie-in video game must be like.
Every single line of dialog is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car driver, a lone honest man in a corrupt industry. Yes, his name is actually Mr… Speed… Racer. His disgraced older brother Rex died a mystifying death years before, providing Speed with the motivation to prove himself both as a driver and as an honest man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) sometimes appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoying little brother with a Brooklyn accent and, god help us all, a monkey. The oddball extended Racer family also includes the Australian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s helicopter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endearing baby fat and now seems startlingly skinny). The whole gang apparently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the living room like an extra sibling.
Lest all the action be of the vehicular variety, the Wachowskis wisely scatter about a few awesome wire-fu fight sequences (apparently not designed by The Matrix‘s genius choreographer Woo-ping Yuen). The most exciting and visually impressive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow providing manga-like motion lines (characteristic of manga). The fights are even more fun when John Goodman gets in on the act, and one understands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for reasons other than a big studio paycheck).
If I were to single out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suffers, like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, with too much backstory. Overlong for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adversaries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain) to accomplish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injustice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has something to do with veteran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remember details after two-plus hours of sheer sensory overload? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dangling (mostly involving the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypothetical third episode.
For any number of possible reasons, this very expensive folly bombed and we almost certainly won’t see that trilogy. The Wachowskis were perceived to have fumbled the wildly popular Matrix franchise with two obtuse sequels (although this blogger would argue in favor of the minority opinion that the second, The Matrix Reloaded, is actually their masterpiece), and they produced the thickheaded V for Vendetta (muddying up and widely missing the point of the powerful anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd). With such a track record it’s not surprising that the moviegoing public, even the genre-loving fanboys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the original Speed Racer cartoon is exceptionally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.
Warner Bros. revealed their embarrassment by issuing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crappiest movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc package padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added material. There’s nothing at all on the DVD about the obviously groundbreaking special effects. Instead, the filmmakers decided that what audiences wanted was more monkey (the vile beastie stars in the closing credits sequence) and more annoying kid brother (who costars in a mockmentary feature with an embarrassingly poorly acted appearance by producer Joel Silver).