An eye-popping, generously-budgeted adaptation of the 1960s Japanese anime series, "Speed Racer" is a phantasmagoric, candy-colored treat for the senses. In placing live-action actors within largely hyper-realized, digitally-enhanced settings and surroundings, sibling writing-directing team Andy and Larry Wachowski (1999's "The Matrix
," 2003's "The Matrix Reloaded
" and 2003's "The Matrix Revolutions
") have vibrantly created a whole new world not quite like any that has been glimpsed on film before. Judging purely on the theatrical trailers, there were early suspicions that the Wachowskis had made a film that would be, indeed, visually stunning, but utterly empty in the screenplay department. Fortunately, this is not the case. While style may be the main course of the picture, there is enough substance in the story and characters for it to also hit some surprisingly emotional notes.
Ever since he was a child, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has eaten, slept and breathed the thrill of car racing. Coming from a family of race car enthusiastshis father, Pops (John Goodman), is an ace mechanicSpeed's life was significantly impacted with the death years earlier of his beloved, rising-star older brother Rex (Scott Porter), who seemingly perished when his automobile erupted in a ball of flames. Wanting to make his late bro proud while making sure never to beat Rex's reigning speed record, Speed is on a quick climb toward the upper echelon of professional racers.
When multibillion-dollar (or is it trillion-dollar?) corporation Royalton Industries makes Speed a seductive offer to come under their wing, he rightfully smells a rat in the steely, impersonal way that owner Royalton (Roger Allam) does business and turns him down. This doesn't at all sit well with Royalton, who vows to make Speed regret his decision. In turn, Speed defies the initial wishes of Pops and Mom (Susan Sarandon) and teams up with elusive one-time rival Racer X (Matthew Fox) for The Crucible, a cutthroat competition that may be the key to finally uncovering Royalton's crooked inner workings of fixed races and cheating to gain profit.
With echoes of everything from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" to "The Jetsons" on acid, "Speed Racer" is nonetheless a one-of-a-kind family film that amidst all of the action and kaleidoscopic effects work is able to teach unforced lessons about morality, integrity and the importance of family. The structure of the script seamlessly alternates early on between the present-day happenings and flashbacks of Speed as a child and the events leading up to Rex's untimely passing, then settles into a more conventional storytelling groove. Throughout, though, the Wachowski Brothers rarely pander or oversimplify for the children in the audience, trusting that all viewers are smart enough to follow a narrative that at times is quite complex in its development and the intrigue involved in Royalton's dirty dealings.
Speed is a true heroic figure worth rooting for, an honorable young man whose upclimb in popularity and racing success never gets in the way of his belief system about what is right and what is wrong. Offering him a lot of support are parents who genuinely care about him and who do not want to make the same mistakes with him that they did with Rex, and girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), a feminist girly-girl who can be just as tough and proactive as the big boys surrounding her. And then there's Racer X, an enigmatic sort who starts off straddling the line between good guy and villain before his real, refreshingly non-clichéd intentions are revealed. The mystery concerning whether or not Racer X may, in fact, be Rex takes some interesting turns that aren't immediately predicted.
What prospective viewers will want to know the most about are the racing sequences, and they do not disappoint. Each one is nicely differentiated from the others in their setting, aesthetic scheme and track construction. The editing and camerawork pop with energy and freneticism, but stay cohesive and don't become so chaotic that one has trouble following them. This is especially key, because the joy in watching these scenes is in their stunningly imaginative look and you-are-there mise en scene
. An extended middle-act set-piece is a particular showstopper, a two-day racing competition moving through three separate climates and environments that takes Speed, Racer X, Japanese driver Taejo (Rain) and, briefly, even Trixie from a balmy North African desert, to a European mountain region of snow and ice, to the finish line at the Brandenburg Gate. Simply put, this action-packed section, as well as several others (one set amidst a tropical archipelago, another during the climactic Grand Prix), are beyond exhilarating, so overwhelmingly trippy and purely exciting that epileptics beware.
As is occasionally the case with greenscreen-heavy films, the performances have a somewhat stilted quality, but that works for a project that is emulating the feel of a cartoon. Emile Hirsch, a long way away from 2007's gritty "Into the Wild
," is clean-cut and cool as the title character of Speed, who lives for racing. Christina Ricci (2008's "Penelope
") is sweet and frothy as Trixie, and has never looked cuter. John Goodman (2007's "Evan Almighty
") and Susan Sarandon (2007's "Enchanted
") are earnest and touching as Pops and Mom Racer. Paulie Litt (2004's "Jersey Girl
") is precocious without being annoying as younger brother Spritle. Matthew Fox (2008's "Vantage Point
") is an alluring force as Racer X, the cards he's playing not revealed until the end. Roger Allam (2006's "The Queen
") is slimily good as the villainous Royalton, reminding of Tim Curry in full-snivel mode. Finally, Scott Porter makes a far more lasting impression here, as the tragic Rex Racer, than he did in 2008's "Prom Night
," despite less screen time.
In staying true to the manga it is based upon, "Speed Racer" has carried over all of the characters, and this includes Spritle's chimpanzee sidekick Chim Chim (played by Kenzie and Willy). While Paulie Litt and the monkey share a likable chemistry, their comic-relief interludes don't always organically fit with the more serious sides of the story. It's tolerable enough in the film itself, but an end credits sequence centering on Chim Chim goes too far into mugging kiddie territory and should have been excised. At least a real chimp plays the part rather than a fakey computer-animated one, so that's something. The only fear is that some older viewers not already acquainted with the old animated series will see him as akin to the Achilles' heel of "Star Wars: Episode I
," Jar Jar Binks.
If adult audience members can move past Spritle's and Chim Chim's slapstick exploits (and it is only a very minor part of the movie), then "Speed Racer" will easily be able to bridge the gap between children and grown-ups. A top-notch fantasy-adventure with human drama and zonky comedy mixed in, the film is a narratively compelling and visually extraordinary smorgasbord that deserves recognition for the overwhelming amount of elements it proposes to juggle and succeeds at. In this critic's humble opinion, Andy and Larry Wachowski have cooked up a superb popcorn extravaganza more consistently satisfying than anything in their "Matrix" trilogy.