Go, Speed Racer…please go.
From its pedigree to its previews, the big-screen adaptation of the classic anime cartoon Speed Racer has had summer popcorn-munchers all atwitter. Sure, it’s a family flick. But it also marks the return of the Wachowski Brothers, their first directorial effort since the final chapter of The Matrix trilogy bowed in 2003. Some of the same crew that helped create that series’ much-quoted look and otherworldly movement would be on board, along with an A-list cast including Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, and, most impressively, Emile Hirsch as Speed.
Except – well, does anyone actually remember The Matrix Reloaded or Revolutions? They kinda sucked.
The realization will hit you like a thud of Neo-ian philosophy before Speed Racer even hits the halfway mark. The film begins to sputter not long after we’re introduced to a young Speed (Nicholas Elia), a cute kid too busy idolizing his brother, Rex (Scott Porter), a champion racer, and getting googly-eyed over classmate Trixie (Ariel Winter) to pay much attention to school.
That’s OK, though, because racing’s in his blood: His Pops (John Goodman) designs cars and managed Rex while Mom (Sarandon) coos over her boys’ talents. Even after Rex is killed in a daredevil cross-country race, the family – which later regrettably includes younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), his pet monkey, and Racer Motors mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), who seems to live with them for no reason – cautiously supports Speed’s desire to compete.
Once Speed flash-forwards from a joyful kid into a traumatized if determined adult, the Wachowskis seem to abandon the idea of an imaginative, fun script in favor of leaden exposition and crazy visuals. At least in that last regard, they succeed: Speed Racer isn’t just generic eye candy, it’s optical Pop Rocks. The film is set God knows where and when – again, digestible story details aren’t the brothers’ strong point – but the look is George Jetson and the Chocolate Factory, all hypersaturated colors and futuristic landscapes. (Except for the Racers’ home, whose decor tends toward the Brady Bunch-ian.)
The races, naturally, are where the art direction really dazzles: Speed’s white, lacquered Mach 5 car is Bat-cool enough. But it moves like the ghost of a ninja, taking turns horizontally and passing through competitors as if they were vapor. The tracks themselves are not so much oval as everywhere, roller-coaster paths that defy physics and appear to be made exclusively of LEDs.
And just as your brain struggles to take in all the frenetic, brightly-colored action, the Wachowskis add layers: There isn’t just a foreground and background. The heads of spectators and commentators float across the screen and over each other during a race, sometimes mingled with flashbacks telling us what’s going on in Speed’s head. It’s often too much to absorb, but it’s still a blast.
The script itself is just as overloaded, but compared to watching an explosion of imagery, parsing the story’s details just feels like work. A multitude of villains, most notably Royalton (Roger Allam), the head of a giant corporation who wants to sponsor Speed, are introduced quickly and confusingly, and the main players are given zero personality: Ricci and Hirsch approach human-like depth when their characters are gently flirting with each other, but otherwise they’re as lifeless as the other one-trait roles. (Pops is suspicious, Trixie and Mom go “Yay!”, Speed drones about racing for Rex’s honor, Spritle is sidekick-annoying.)
Monkey humor, shocking though it may be, doesn’t work here, and neither does a root-for-the-hero plot when the stakes aren’t exactly made clear – not to mention the hero himself not being terribly charismatic. Speed’s mother tells him that when he drives, “it’s beautiful, and inspiring, and everything that art should be.” It’s an unfortunate reminder of everything Speed Racer is not.