Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer

Speed Racer has all the elements of its original Japanese anime source material: it’s exciting, ridiculous, cheesy, and strangely endearing. The Wachowski Brothers (of The Matrix) have made a faithful adaptation by keeping it fun and silly in equal measures. The filmmakers made bold choices, and I think they paid off. Don’t go expecting anything moving or spectacular, but do take the kids, and be prepared for fast-paced, family-friendly fun.

Based on the first Japanese anime show to be popular in the United States, Speed Racer revolves around a family of race car enthusiasts. You may think that the title is descriptive, but no; the lead character’s name is actually Speed Racer. Speed (Emile Hirsch) has only ever wanted to be a race car driver. He has always raced for his parents’ company, and as his dream of being the best comes true, he quickly falls under pressure from large companies wanting to buy him out. The more he learns about corruption within the sport, the more Speed wants to fight back and win with integrity. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play Mom and Pops Racer, and Christina Ricci plays Trixie, Speed’s long-time love interest.

More than eye candy, the visuals in this film border on eye cocaine. The environments are digitally painted to look constantly bright and surreal, and objects in the background remain in focus even when they shouldn’t, much like hand-drawn animation. The richest colors pop off the screen at all times, yet I never felt assaulted by the style, which some viewers probably will. For me, the visuals enrich the fun. They will also likely hold up over time, because they never strive for realism. When computer animation attempts to be realistic, it usually looks dated within just a few years. Much like the hand-painted afterlife sequence in What Dreams May Come (1998), these visuals will probably never be duplicated, and are therefore likely to last.

Fans of the original show will recognize many iconic elements and phrases, but most viewers these days aren’t fans of the original show. The Wachowskis are playing to a niche market here, and that may hurt the film’s overall appeal. I think kids of all ages will enjoy Speed Racer, but some may stay away just because of how odd and specialized it is. Because the film occupies a world on par with the original show, it never achieves real depth of emotion. The actors do well with the material, but it’s more goofy and light-hearted than dramatic.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. It would have been easy to make Speed Racer edgy for teens and adults, especially given the Wachowskis’ past films like The Matrix and V for Vendetta. Just a little violence and sexuality would have been very simple, but it wouldn’t have been true to the original cartoon, and that one criterion seems to have guided most of the decisions along the way. I predict this film will have many critics, but most of their criticisms will be applicable not only to the film, but to the original show. The two beat with one heart.

I was expecting to be thoroughly entertained by the visuals, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to have a good time. I’m glad to say that Speed Racer delivers the kind of popcorn-fun you hope for in a summer movie. I hope this film finds its audience, because as quirky as it is, it succeeds as a piece of well-made escapism. Personally, I enjoyed watching a “live action anime.” It slides easily from silly, cartoonish kung-fu scenes to serious lessons about putting family first. It may be corny enough to feed Kansas, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming the “Go, Speed Racer, go!” theme song for days to come.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence and language.

While the non-stop action is intense, the violence itself is tame, even to the point that drivers don’t die in the races, but eject out of their cars in safety bubbles. There is one scene where mobsters are about to torture someone, but they never get around to it. Language is scattered throughout, but sparse. I think most kids will absolutely eat this up.