Get ready for color! “Speed Racer,” the new film from the Wachowski Brothers (“The Matrix,” “V for Vendetta”), hits you with bright colors from the first second--not of the film, but during the studio cards. The Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures logos are animated in front of a kaleidoscope of bright, sharp colors. From there, it never lets up.
Based on the classic animated series of the same name, the film details the rise of Speed Racer from his first amateur win to his first Grand Prix, but he learns a great deal about his family and corporate culture along the way. The entire gang appears; Speed, Mom, Pops, Sparky, Trixie, Racer X, and Inspector Detector. Oh yeah, Spritle and Chim-Chim are in the trunk. All the characters resemble their cartoon counterparts, and that replication is no accident as the Wachowskis made an effort to transpose the cast of actors, which features Emile Hirsch as Speed and Matthew Fox as Racer X, into the day-glo animated reality of the 1960s cartoon source. What changes you do find to the television series only aid the melding of technologies, sensibilities, and years.
That is not to say all is peachy-keen in the Speed’s world. A money-minded conglomerate boss named E.P. Arnold Royalton (played with mustache-twirled glee by actor Roger Allam) targets the Racer family for acquisition. When his advances are rejected by Speed, Royalton sets out to destroy the Racer family utterly and shame Speed out of professional racing. Speed’s only option is to team up with Racer X and Taejo Togokahn (played by Asian pop star Rain) to race a treacherous semi-legal cross-continent course.
This section of the film will be the most pleasing to those with the strongest memories of the original show. It invokes the most pop-insanity with cars utilizing improbable weapons and defense systems, identity switching, the legendary Mach 5, and the Spritle/Chim-Chim team getting into trouble. It may also remind some viewers of “Mortal Kombat.”
The entire film has a gleeful disregard for the photo-realism that plagues many summer movies, including the later parts of the Wachowskis’ own “The Matrix” trilogy. This reckless abandon will evoke memories of childhood racing video games like “Pole Position” and “Mario Kart 64,” which is intentional. Unlike previous outings, this is a family film to the brightest red pixel core.
“Speed Racer” also has a surprisingly strong undercurrent of family values (the real sort, not the political sort) alongside the Wachowski brand of rebellion -- in this case, against corporation domination of the arts. The latter is not as well integrated into the plot as the former, relying on Susan Sarandon to convey the art-versus-commerce screed. It is notable that her major scene takes place on one of the few fully realized sets (the majority of the film was shot against green sceens). Relating Speed’s driving to art in general, though, puts too fine a point on it. Of course, in a movie that assaults you with color, flashes of cars, and the quickest zip-pans in film history, subtlety is excess to requirements.
Despite all the constant motion and energy, “Speed Racer” is oddly paced. The movie feels ready to end after Speed’s second victory, leaving the Grand Prix and the final gambit of Royalton for subsequent films. It even gives fans of the show a visual clue that the movie is over; what old film people used to call a “hat-grabber.” The film does not stop, however, taking the story all the way to the final finish line. It may leave the viewer a little anxious as the film rebuilds steam for the final race. At the same time, the completion of the entire storyline does make for a satisfying ending. Perhaps learning from the mixed response to the serial style cliff-hanger of “The Matrix Reloaded,” the Wachowskis opted for a done-in-one approach that still leaves the track open for a franchise.
The cast of “Speed Racer” thrives inside the mid-century futuristic landscape, with John Goodman’s Pops Racer being the standout performance. Whether fighting a ninja or having a heart-to-heart with Speed, Goodman finds the right pitch for every scene and his take on Pops is surprisingly well-rounded. Yes, Pops fights a ninja.
Emil Hirsch surprises in the title role. This part, the all-American goody-goody, could have easily been the most leaden and uninspired of the piece. Yet Hirsch infuses Speed with all the right qualities for a young man, and his early eagerness and optimism never enters the syrup zone and his mid-film pessimism never aches of Skywalker-level emo. Despite the cartoon situations, Hirsch’s Speed always has an appropriate human response and his emotional arc is remarkably believable. Oh, he also gets to fight a ninja.
Matthew Fox’s Racer X is interesting. The speech and mannerisms recall a familiar superhero and performance, but not a specific actor or character. Crisp in his delivery, Fox’s take on X could easily spawn a solo outing. Also: ninja.
Trixie, played by Christina Ricci, is seemingly underutilized as her relationship with Speed is never imperiled. She actually has plenty to do and her place in the Racer family makes perfect sense. Trixie even gets a couple of good punches in. It is interesting to note the Wachowskis resisted the temptation to give the couple emotional jeopardy as most summer movies (family film or not) would take that course. Ricci’s performance is a Ricci performance: the spunky odd-looking girl.
Rain is also a standout in a small part. During parts of the film, it almost seems as though he was the Wachowskis’ first choice for Speed. It is no surprise he has a major role in the upcoming “Ninja Assassin,” which is also being produced by the Wachowskis.
As for Spritle and Chim-Chim? They’re Spritle and Chim-Chim. Hyper-active, over-sugared, and always in trouble. Kids will love them. Surprisingly, they were only slightly grating to the adults in the audience. Actually, Paulie Litt, who plays Spritle, carries himself quite well in the few dramatic scenes he is given. The only sour note in the entire cast is the child actor who plays young Speed in flashbacks. He is the first actor in the entire film and could easily kill it for some in the audience. His impersonation of enthusiasm never rings true. His responses never come from a place of honesty.
“Speed Racer” is a solid family film that skews more toward the adults in the audience than the children. It has a surprisingly strong emotional core that gives the races an interesting jeopardy. It features a style that will please those who can adjust to its color palette without succumbing to seizures. Also, the film will impart a desire to race during the commute home.
Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.