In their first writing/directing effort since the conclusion of the epic Matrix trilogy, the Wachowski brothers grab the steering wheel of Speed Racer, a live-action adaptation of the classic Japanese cartoon from the ’60s. Given the groundbreaking, if audience-splitting work the Wachowskis did on the techno-mythical Matrix films, Speed Racer seems like a somewhat junior-grade assignment. Despite the subdued expectations, this kiddie flick freak-out looks like it was shot not with a camera lens, but with a kaleidoscope. Watching it is roughly akin to taking LSD at Disneyland. (My God, the colors!) The result is a 10,000 RPM action movie that is somehow more cartoony than an actual cartoon.
Emile Hirsch (hot off Into the Wild) is our boy Speed, a futuristic race car driver who dreams of following in his long-lost brother’s lead-footed tracks. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon are along for the ride as Mom and Pops Racer, and Christina Ricci offers support as Speed’s loyal g.f. Trixie. (If ever there was an actress destined to play a saucer-eyed Japanese cartoon character, it’s Christina Ricci.) For the kids in the audience, there’s Speed’s mischievous little brother Spritle (enthusiastic butterball Paulie Litt from “Hope & Faith”) and his pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim (who, thankfully, is not computer-generated). Immediately, fans of the old cartoon will notice how faithful Speed Racer is to its source material. The details—right down to Trixie’s pink helicopter and the buttons on the Mach 5’s steering wheel—are spot-on.
The major upgrade for this outing is the racing sequences. This is no Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. The race courses here all look like they were built out of Hot Wheels tracks by Frank Gehry’s sugar-addled 8-year-old nephew. Neon-lit blacktops loop into the sky, over mountain peaks and under the water. Cars skid around the tracks less like drift racers and more like out-of-control pinballs. To top it all off, cars are equipped with an arsenal of dastardly offensive and defensive weapons that would make James Bond’s gadget man Q weep with envy. Sure, it looks like a video game—but it looks like a video game you can't wait to play.
There’s no mistaking the fact that Speed Racer is geared toward kids. It’s juvenile, colorful and filled with slapstick, attention-addled action. Snobbish older fanboys of the original series may be put off to find the Wachowskis have taken such an adolescent approach. But, just like the 35-year-old with the “Thundercats” poster in his bedroom, these viewers have missed the point. Cartoons are for kids, and no amount of ironic, post-modern posturing is going to change that fact. You either love them for what they are or you grow the hell up. Me, I’ve chosen the former. I had an absolute ball with Speed Racer, reveling in every preposterous, gravity-defying car jump and listening gleefully to the sound of my own retinas as they sizzled under the Wachowski’s DayGlo visual onslaught. Others, admittedly, may not be as enthusiastic.
At 129 minutes, Speed Racer seems awfully long for the candy-gobblers in the audience. There’s plenty of touching, well-scripted family drama laced thoughout the film, but much of it feels out of place. Elementary schoolers want action, not father-son bonding, motherly advice and sibling rivalry. And with its “Dick Tracy-meets-Hero by way of Mario Kart” style, the film may be way (way, way) too over-the-top for many adults. Grown-ups who can get themselves in the proper “8-year-old on a Saturday morning with a stomach full of Lucky Charms” vibe, however, are apt to label this as pure, psychedelic, high-speed techno-bliss.
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