Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer is anime in overdrive without substance

Converting a fondly remembered cartoon series — one of the first Japanese animes syndicated on American TV — into a prospective franchise, the Matrix masters, Larry and Andy Wachowski, have taken another step toward the total cyb­organization of the cinema.

Even more than most summer-season F/X fests, Speed Racer is a live action/animation hybrid and, what's more, proud of it. Bright, shiny, and button-cute, the movie is a self-consciously tawdry trifle — a celluloid analog to the ribbon-bedecked, mirrored gewgaws that clever European settlers hoped to swap with the savages for Manhattan Island.

What you see is what you get. "Production design" is a poor term to describe Owen Paterson's avidly garish look. Gaudier than a Hindu-temple roof, louder than the Las Vegas night, Speed Racer is a cathedral of glitz. The movie projects a Candy Land topography of lava-lamp skies and Hello Kitty clouds — part Middle Earth, part mental breakdown — using a beyond-Bollywood color scheme wherein telephones are blood orange, jet planes electric fuchsia, and ultra-turquoise is the new black.

The Matrix in Candy Land: Emile Hirsch could be the new One in Speed Racer.
The Matrix in Candy Land: Emile Hirsch could be the new One in Speed Racer.

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Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Based on the animated series by Tatsuo Yoshida. Starring Emile Hirsch, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Roger Allam, and Matthew Fox. Rated PG.

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Call it Power Kitsch, Neo-Jetsonism, or Icon-D — this film could launch a movement. For me, this carousel, which clocks in at a leisurely 135 minutes, is more fun to describe than to ride. Blithely nonlinear for its first half-hour, the past merging with the present as shifting backgrounds segue to flashbacks, Speed Racer has a narrative at once simpleminded and senseless, albeit touchingly faithful to Tatsuo Yoshida's original cartoons. Here, too, the eponymous hero (Emile Hirsch) — child of the auto-inventor Pops Racer (John Goodman, man-mountain of goodwill) and Mom Racer (self-Stepfordized Susan Sarandon) — is born to drive the family Mach 5, particularly once older brother Rex is seemingly vaporized in a wreck. And drive Speed does — if not quite as well as the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).

For all the excited color commentary ("Speed Racer is driving straight up a cliff face!!!"), the races lack drama. Each spectacle is an autonomous, enjoyably lurid tinsel-confetti blur, with crack-ups as convoluted as they are inconsequential. As choreographed as the action is, it lacks only printed sound effects — Wham! Blam! Pow! — to sign-post the Wachowskis' facetiousness.

After the relative failures of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and the widespread disapproval inspired by their tastelessly anarcho-terrorist V for Vendetta, the brothers have opted for family-friendly fluff. In place of irony, there's a sprinkling of camp sentimentality. Speed is abetted by plucky girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, reliving her lysergic past as Addams Family ingénue), who, Louise Brooks bob set off by a pair of red barrettes, is even more of a porcelain doll than Mom. And, as back in the day, the clan includes a tubby little brother (Paulie Litt) with a bratty pet chimp. Everyone has a role, even if it's only a matter of creative lurking. As Pops and his engineer, Sparky (Kick Gurry), rebuild the Mach 5 for the Grand Prix, Mom makes the peanut-butter sandwiches. No Oracle she.

Like The Matrix (or its engagingly primitive precursor, the DOS-era Disney relic Tron), Speed Racer gives the not-unrealistic impression of taking place inside a computer. But love, hate, or ignore it, The Matrix proposed a social mythology. (Just ask Slavoj iek.) Speed Racer is simply a mishmash that, among other things, intermittently parodies the earlier film's pretensions: His path plotted by a mysterious cabal, Speed Racer could be the One. Indeed, in the grand first-installment climax, messianic frenzy merges with market research as the young racer's "upset" victory bids not only to change the face of high-stakes race-car driving but the nature of reality itself: "It's a whole new world!" This hopeful self-promotion is especially ridiculous in that Speed Racer — like The Matrix and the plot-heavy V for Vendetta — ostentatiously traffics in left-wing allegory.

The villain (Roger Allam, V for Vendetta's fascist talk-show host) is a slavering tycoon, while Speed Racer is, as his mother tells him, an artist. In the movie, racing is itself a racket — the effluvium of decaying Capital within the Matrix. Multinationals sponsor drivers, fix races, and use the sport to drive up the market price of their stock — so the Wachowski brothers might once have regarded Hollywood. Ideologically anti-corporate, their previous productions aspired to be something more than mindless sensation; Speed Racer is thrilled to be less. It's the delusions minus the grandeur.

 
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2 comments
Sean
Sean

You are a critic of one of the most unique adaptations of a CARTOON that has ever been made. Congratulations on your expert analysis of a CARTOON! You do briefly mention the fact that it is faithful to the Speed Racer cartoon, but continue to compare it to the Matrix, as if it were in the same genre. Why don't you mention the entirely new cinematographic style (genre) that the brothers have created in Speed Racer? You can't seem to get past the colors and the plot. What is wrong with color, anyway??? In my opinion, we have completely taken color completely out of our culture... just look at the color of the suburban home you live in, most likely determined by some neighborhood association. Now, look at the beauty of the rainbow just after the rain.

What are you afraid of? Of simple plot lines that kids can understand? Of being taken to another world for 1 hour and 35 minutes? Of having a little fun? Obviously you are too tight, my friend. Too tight! Loosen up and enjoy the rollercoaster ride that Speed Racer could be if you let it. One way to do this would be to go with a kid. Oh... you don't know any kids? So sad.

Todd Lang
Todd Lang

My God have you lost your sense of humor? I've seen the film with my 8 and 6 year old kids and they loved it! But then again, I loved it too. In my view it was a perfect update with numerous homages to the orginal cartoons. Goofy over-the-top animation, great diaologue, etc. The intense colors and visuals are perfect for this kind of fantasy racing adventure.

You whine that there isn't serious plot or character development, and complain that there isn't enough "substance." Hello!?! It is SPEED RACER for God's sake. This isn't Kurosawa or Herzog or even Coppola. This is a high-tech update of a anime fantasy --directed at kids and families.

Yes, the plot is predictable and obvious, the characters cliche, and the scenes overwhelmingly bright. Just as the Wachkowskis intended! The movie is a blast and the racing scenes intense and fun. Spoiler alert: This film is not realistic. Danica Patrick can learn nothing about racing by watching it. But if you're looking for a fun kids movie, this one has everything.

 

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