Speed RacerDirected by Andy and Larry WachowskiStarring Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon and Christina RicciRated PG5.5
Goes well with: The Matrix Revolutions, Cars, Inspector Gadget
There's one important thing to remember before you sit down with your popcorn and Red Vines to watch Speed Racer. Of course, it's worth noting that this is the latest film from Andy and Larry Wachowski, the minds behind The Matrix and the two terribly unsatisfying sequels. And sure, let's not forget that the film's inspiration is a Japanese comic that was turned into a cartoon back in the 1960s before being imported to the U.S. But what's vital is being fully aware that it's rated PG. Not R. Not PG-13. PG. It's a movie for kids.
Yes, finally, someone has thought of the children. It's just surprising that it was the Wachowskis, best known for their ultra-violent bullet-time cinema, and disappointing because much of the plot is too sophisticated for the pre-junior-high set, while the nods to adults aren't enough to keep them—the original fans—engaged.
Speed Racer stays true to much of its original family and family values—the entire Racer clan from the cartoon is intact. Speed is played by Emile Hirsch, probably best known for starring in Sean Penn's version of Into the Wild last year. As a child, all Speed wanted to do was race. Not much has changed as he grows into a man, except that he's haunted by the memory of his big brother, Rex Racer, who died in a fiery crash after besmirching the family name.
His father, Pops Racer (John Goodman), builds the cars; Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) makes pancakes; girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) spots obstacles from a helicopter; Sparky (Kick Curry) keeps things running on the track; and even Speed's mischievously irritating younger brother Spritle is here, played by an annoying pudgy kid, along with his own truly gratuitous monkey sidekick, Chim-Chim. It all takes place in a NASCAR-meets-Willie Wonka future that looks like it was drawn by Dr. Seuss. Car racing is king, and the world is inhabited by a truly good-looking multicultural population.
After winning a big race, Speed and his family are courted by the corporate magnate Royalton (Roger Allam) to join his racing team. When he's turned down, he becomes nasty, doing his best to ruin Speed's career and, since he's such a grand prick, prevent him from entering the Grand Prix. But Speed hooks up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who may or may not actually be Rex Racer, and Taejo (Korean pop star Rain, guaranteed to boost box-office sales in that part of the world) to take on the bad guys. There's a comfortable anti-corporate, anti-conformity, up-with-the-little-guy, stick-by-your-family theme that runs through the movie, which the kids will get, even if they don't fully grasp the movie's bigger ideas—how stock prices, corporate malfeasance and media consolidation are ruining the sport.
But, honestly, all this is beside the point. Speed Racer is all about the racing. And everything you've seen and heard about the special effects are true. The action sequences are, at times, astounding. The Wachowski brothers, who truly revolutionized FX back with the original Matrix, have pushed the effects envelope once again. The cars, not to mention the way they interact with the track and each other, are beautiful. The whole movie looks amazing.
But the truth is hard, and the truth is that looks aren't everything. Yes, the colors are gorgeous, but one can't help but be reminded of food-coloring-heavy seasonal milkshakes (which, like the story, are usually too thin) sold at fast-food chains, where, by now, one can be purchased in a Speed Racer fun meal. Also, at a certain point, all the crashes and smashes and jumps and flips blend together in a brilliantly colored, fast-moving milkshake, leaving one to wonder just what camera wizardry the Wachowskis used to shave 40 pounds off John Goodman for the flashback sequences.
Clocking in at more than two hours, Speed Racer is a good half-hour too long—so, what should be a quick trip feels like a painfully long ride in the family car.