When the original “Speed Racer” cartoon entered American syndication in the 1970s, it marked the beginning of the Japanese animation movement (to paraphrase “Die Hard’s” Mr. Takagi: Pearl Harbor didn’t work, so they got us with Tenchi). It was also nearly unwatchable: a crudely drawn, incoherent mish-mash of recycled footage, sloppy overdubbing, and childish dialogue. That it enjoys the reputation it does is based almost solely on the fact that it was usually the first anime most people over the age of 30 remember seeing, even if few actually admit to watching it. Were we in any era other than the early 21st century, when even Irwin Allen movies are fodder for Hollywood’s regurgitation fetish, I’d have been surprised to hear that anyone was bothering to revisit it.
Enter the Wachowskis, who – either in reaction to the less than enthusiastic response that greeted the last two “Matrix” movies, or in an attempt to bury discussion of Larry’s personal life, whatever – decided that a big-screen “Speed Racer” flick was the perfect vehicle (he ha ho) for their directorial comeback.
Hearing the advance buzz on the movie, most of it negative, and given my own lack of affection for the source material, my expectations couldn’t have been lower. Which could be why I’m having such a difficult time dismissing the movie out of hand. It isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s perfectly acceptable for what it is.
The action at first weaves back and forth between a young Speed Racer daydreaming about driving a race car and the present-day adult version actually doing so. Through these flashbacks, we learn that Speed (Emile Hirsch) grew up idolizing his big brother Rex, who left the family for vague reasons and was later killed. In these first scenes, Speed is literally racing Rex’s ghost on the track where his deceased brother holds the course record.
After winning the race, Speed is approached by Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), a super-duper industrialist who wants the young man for his racing team. He makes an attractive proposal, but after agonizing over the decision with mother “Mom” (Susan Sarandon), father “Pops” (John Goodman), and girlfriend “Trixie” (Christina Ricci, looking creepily like Sarandon), Speed decides to stay independent. Royalton vows revenge, essentially telling Speed he’ll never race in this town again. Shortly thereafter, Speed is approached by “Inspector Detector” and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who offer him a chance to put the crooked Royalton behind bars.
Within five minutes, it’s apparent that the cinematic “Speed Racer” is nearly as much a cartoon as the original. Aside from close-ups and a few group cast shots in front of a massive green screen, everything else in the movie – from the vehicles to the sky itself – consists of garish computer animation and elaborately rendered backgrounds. Animation purists will decry the antiseptic feel of the endeavor while possibly questioning the use of live actors in the first place. And then they’ll complain about getting a headache.
But let’s not forget, the original “Speed Racer” was a cartoon for children, and the movie doesn’t exactly aim for a more cerebral demographic. Kids, you’ll cheer as our squeaky clean protagonists show how one person really can take a stand against the forces of greed and corruption. And have you ever wondered what it must be like to drive a car made out of Lite Brite through a Hot Wheels Turbo Tunnel? Now you know! There’s also enough swear words to warrant a PG rating (but not so many that your parents will leave in a huff), a chimp, and one solid kick in the nuts.
All that’s lacking is a free pint of chocolate milk with each ticket sold.
Had the Wachowski Brothers kept things tight and ludicrous, and not bloated “Speed Racer” to a mind-numbing 129 minutes with pointless subplots concerning stock takeovers and corporate fraud, I’d have an easier time defending it (that they gave bit parts to some of the original voice talent counts for a lot however). And even with the anemic performances (Fox and Allam being exceptions), protracted stretches of goofy dialogue, and the disturbing idea of a Japan largely free of Japanese people, there’s enough eye-popping goofiness to satisfy today’s Ritalin-dosed youth.
I’m no spring chicken, but the complaints about “Speed Racer’s” volume and seizure-inducing visuals sounds like the lamentations of a bunch of grandparents pining for the days of penny candy and segregated fountains. It’s the Wachowskis, people… what the fuck did you expect?