Now, let's talk a little about Speed Racer! Not the 2008 movie, yet... the 1967 Cartoon. The old Speed Racer show, based on the Japanese Anime series Mahha GoGoGo was one of the more complexly plotted television series ever marketed for children. It boasted challenging family drama, scenes of very cool action and very funny moments both intentional and unintentional. It was also far, far too silly sometimes. This strange dichotomy resulted in great fandom for kids and some odd moments for adults who could be enthralled and annoyed within only a few frames.
This is, in no small part, responsible for the fact that the show (along with its source material) are still enjoyed to this day arguably more than similar Anime imports like Astroboy and Gigantor. For those of you unfamiliar, Astroboy is a spiky haired little Robot Dude while Gigantor is a Space Age Ro-bot, he's at your command! Gigantor is a Space Age Ro-bot, his power is in your hands! GIGANTOR IS A SPACE AGE RO-BOT HE'S AT YOUR COMMAND! GIGANTOR IS A SPACE AGE RO-BOT HIS POWER IS IN YOUR HANDS! He's bigger than big, taller than tall, quicker than quick, stronger than strong, ready to fight for right...
... against wrong!
But back to Speed Racer. Fans of the show remain all over the planet, including Anime fans, non Anime fans... Even Canadians! Therefore it's absolutely no surprise whatsoever that The Wachowski Brothers, creators of the far-beyond heavily Anime-influenced The Matrix (who, by the way, are not Canadian) are among the show's biggest fans... or, at least the fans of the show with the largest influence, largest bank roll and greatest likelihood to get the show made into a live-action film.
Which is what ol' Andy and Larry did, sure as Particleboard is Cheap! Well... let me rephrase that... they made it into a film with Live Action elements that has a higher percentage of animation than Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit combined, man! The fact that it was the Wachowskis who were given the GoGoGo to make the movie (thanks, in no small part, to Joel Silver, who produced this film with the Wachowskis and his old buddy-boy Grant Hill) is as surprising a choice as the idea of having Stan Lee make Cameo Appearances in Marvel Movies.
So how did they do at the Helm of Speed Racer? Pretty well. It's an exciting movie with lots of fun on a lot of levels and it sports a great cast of the primary characters all the way down to the Cameo "Hi-How-Are-Yaz". But it's also missing something. In their frame-blitzing zeal to bring Speed Racer as fully formed as possible, the Wachowski Brothers as producers, directors and especially writers pack in the same elements that the Television Show exposed as the series unfolded from the complex subplots to the family interaction to the complete silliness, slapstick goofs and complete and total campiness that usually worked on the small screen.
The problem here is that these divergent elements (that sometimes mixed poorly in the cartoon show) rarely prove soluble in the overall filmed version of Speed Racer. The over-the-top acting that we see so often here (which is, in fact, one of the more pure interpretations from the original show) has a tendency to feel too silly to adults while the long, expository dialogues between varied characters has a tendency to bore the small children that so many of the silly, slapstick interludes seem to be aimed toward. In the theatre I saw the film in there were sporadic times in which the very small children (who were all over) all laughed in unison, like a chorus of Pokemon clones. There were other times in which those same kids were so bored they were running around the theatre, talking in gibberish and doing any old thing to entertain themselves. Similarly, the older kids and adults had plenty of "OH YES!!!" moments along with a ton of checks of the old watch and forgivable trips to the rest room. Some of the violence and intense situations might be too much for the tykes (and the building storyline might be over their heads) while the scatologicall humor and goofy kid moments might cause too many eye rolls for the adults.
The film itself feels like a cross between The Matrix, The Love Bug and the Star Wars: Episode I - Racer video game, along with a heapin' helpin' of Speed Racer's many incarnations to boot.
The origin of Speed Racer (played by Emile Hirsch) is told primarily in flashback (during which Nicholas Elia plays the Young Speed). He's a kid obsessed with Auto Racing from an Auto Racing family. He idolizes his big brother Rex Racer (played in flashback by Scott Porter) and he loves his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and his Pops (John Goodman), but he's so focused on Racing Cars that very little else matters to him (so it takes the involvement of Ariel Winter's Young Trixie) to get him through school).
The tight-knit family is shattered, however, when a perilous cross country race called "Casa Christo" (but nicknamed "The Crucible") takes Rex from them.
In the present, Speed Racer is working his way up the ranks of the best racers in the world, just like his big brother did before him. These days there are other big racers out there like The Grey Ghost (Moritz Bleibtreu), Snake Oiler (Christian Oliver), Jack "Cannonball" Taylor (Ralph Herforth) and especially, The Masked Racer himself... Racer X (exceptionally portrayed by Matthew Fox)!
Amid attempts by the likes of Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam) and Mr. Musha (Hiroyuki Sanada), Speed opts to stay as clean as Polly Pureheart so that he can join the ranks of the all time greats like Ben Burns (Richard "Shaft" Roundtree).
Thusly the good guys are gathered together by the noble Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) to wrest control of the sport from the special interests. On board are Taejo Togokhan (Rain), his sister Horoku (Yu Nan), the Racer Motors' mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), Trixie herself (now FULLY grown up and played by Christina Ricci... yowza), the lovely Minx (Nayo Wallace) and her boyfriend who just happens to be Racer X, who has a special interest in Speed's success. Needless to say for anyone who has ever seen the cartoon, Speed's younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his best buddy Chim Chim (alternately played by the Chimpanzee Willy and the other Chimpanzee Kenzie) are also along to hopefully interest the kids in that same way that Jar-Jar Binks managed to so well in other films. The goal of this new team is to make it to, and win, the Grand Prix, but step one is to compete in THE CRUCIBLE... the very race that claimed Speed's big brother Rex.
Needless to say what follows is exciting. There are incredible racing scenes along with attacks by Ninjas and surprise attacks by villains on the course. There's even a fair amount of intrigue in the wildly shifting loyalties of everyone but the purest hearted of the characters. Yes, the plot does manage to preserve some of the complexities of the original show. Again, many of these are simply too disjointed to work.
Right about the time that something really interesting starts to happen, Spritle and Chim Chim pop out of the trunk to do something ridiculous, complete with Anime Lines and everything. So much of this is simply unnecessary to the plot, but clearly this is what the Wachowskis intended when they made the film. In some ways I started imagining a cool uncle who is put in charge of babysitting the kids one weekend, but is sorely unprepared to do so, having lived a much more grown-up life than such an assignment might call for. He might try to appeal to the kids with some complex story-telling, then realize they're getting bored and start making bathroom jokes to hopefully even it all out. In short... perhaps the Wachowskis were better suited making movies for grownups. Their quick-change shifts to kiddy humor aren't nearly as seamless as the television show they've based their movie on.
The special effects are very good but are often intentionally made to look cartoonish. Speed Racer was filmed in no small part in front of Green Screens and nearly every inch of the Silver Screen is filled with beautiful CGI to look at. That which looks completely fake does, indeed, look so fake that it's obviously intentional. Exploding cars (fear not, each car is equipped with a unique ejection system... nobody dies) are given multi-colored blasts that look like the kind of thing you could expect to see in the old Mahha GoGoGo program. Landscapes look more like video-games than alternate worlds and even humans behave less like creatures grounded in reality and more like cartoons to bend and formulate. The overall result, quite often, is sensory overload. In many areas this works quite well (the now-iconic leap of Speed Racer from the powerful Mach 5 onto the tarmac is given great Matrix-like effects), in others it simply seems that they've tried too hard.
The sense of "obvious attempt" is digitally painted all over this film from the special effects to the story to the very acting. True, this kind of Living Cartoon is what the Brothers wanted to make (after all, a lot of Speed Racer fans might have complained if the core of the show was missed). Looking at this another way, such intentional blurring of the lines has worked in a lot of cases. Indiana Jones and Star Wars brought back the Saturday Matinee feel successfully like few others ever could. Grindhouse and Sin City, though certainly aimed toward adults, managed to bring b-movies and noir comics to cool life. Even the Wachowskis' own Matrix movies combined the internet age with the manga craze for a very fine trilogy. However, the same intent has failed very often in cases like the painful Batman & Robin, the fractured Domino and the sadly lamentable Superman IV.
Still, it would be hard to claim that the Wachowskis didn't care or even that Speed Racer is an affront of some kind. This feels like the movie the wanted to make and intended and it seems clear that they put a lot of thought into doing this, even though not all of their experiments bore the juiciest fruit. To a certain extent the audience can, and probably should, simply shut up and have fun. Speed Racer is fun and too much nitpicking can unravel a lot of things of this kind, including the original (critically acclaimed, I might add) show this is based on. If you question it too terribly much or dissect the movie to its bare bones a lot of cool things could be missed. Yes, it's a bit of a mixed bag and there are some plot holes one could drive a Mach 6 through... but it's also a good ride packed with recognizable actors, a good (if familiar) story and some decent enough laughs (not to mention a lot of beautiful women).
In some of the slower moments I was content to have fun seeing when the next familiar face would pop up on screen. The appearances of Richard Roundtree and Benno Furmann were surprising enough, but the cameos seemed unending from Ben Miles' appearance as Cass Jones to original Speed Racer voice actors Peter Fernandez' and Corinne Orr's on-screen roles as race announcers.
All told, the film is worth seeing and there can be plenty of fun for most audience members. Andy and Larry seemed to want to take the idea of "something for everyone" to the Nth degree here, hoping to please all the people all the time. Sadly, this didn't happen and the individual elements are scattered in a none-too cohesive whole. Three Stars out of Five for the fun but deeply flawed Speed Racer. Yeah, we should probably all relax and accept that this is a kids' movie... sadly not too many of the kids in the theatre with me would agree with that as the grown up elements were completely lost on them. One way or the other, any way you slice it, there is one thing I can say I'm 100% sure of after this film... Matthew Fox is king. Go Racer X, Go Racer X, Go Racer X, GO!
And when the odds are against him and there's
DANGEROUS WORK to do!
You bet your life SPEED RACER will...
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