I grew up in Western Quebec, which imported craploads of anime cartoons in the 1970s and early 80s by way of France. Children’s television in my neck of the woods teemed with characters with half-egg eyes, puppet mouths, spiked hair and absentee parents. Even stone kid-stupid, I could detect a real aesthetic difference between these sorts of cartoons and the Hanna-Barbera output my cousins in Ontario were watching. And because I was only eight years old (and kid-stupid), I used to think this strange cartoon aesthetic was a French quirk. It wasn’t until I was menstrual that I learned the true source of Astro Boy, Sophie and Battle of the Planets, or heard the word anime. Speed Racer, however, was completely off my radar—whether it never aired in my region or whether I suffered an accident of oblivion, I can’t honestly say. Whatever the reason, I missed my opportunity to develop any kind of nostalgic fondness for Speed Racer when I was young. Lacking that fanboy grease to shoe-horn me into interest, and being neither ten years old nor a gearhead, Speed Racer turned out to be sixteen kinds of dull for me, the way formulaic kids’ movies often are for folks who’ve lived more than two decades on this ball.
That isn’t sarcasm. I actually walked into the movie with a kernel of hope. Anime history aside, Speed Racer comes to the screen with a lovely kind of pedigree: the action-movie-director-turned-family-filmmaker tradition. And what a tradition that is. The Babe movies, which I love, were directed and/or written by George Miller, who also made Road Warrior (which I love). Spy Kids, which I didn’t hate, was directed by Robert Rodriguez, whose other, more adult output I enjoy more often than not. Sure, I originally had to be headlocked into seeing both Spy Kids and the Babe movies before I discovered their charm (not trusting a family film further than I can throw one), but if the Babe pictures and Spy Kids have taught me anything, it’s that outrageous cult directors can often stir unexpected wonder out of the least likely genre. So given that Speed Racer has the Wachowski Brothers behind it (the makers of The Matrix), there was a chance the movie could have been one of those rare, dark-yet-bright hybrids beloved of both kids and adults alike.
Not this time. Peel back the anime references and the psychedelic production design, and you get exactly what you might expect from a movie that may have been conjured out of the steam of manga irony but was ultimately designed, packaged and marketed for the short set. Speed Racer, though it tries oh so hard not to be, isn’t much more than a connect-the-dots family movie, complete with hackneyed plot, cute-ass mugging, father-knows-best sentiment, and that patronizing Disney/Pixar humor which has always turned my guts. In fact, it’s almost impossible to see the bones of the original anime series through all the hallucinogenic lard (if fans are wondering). That may be fine if you want to kill two hours at the multiplex with the offspring (more on that below), but don’t bother hitting Speed Racer in a bid to satisfy your inner geek. You’ll end up starving him.
The Wachowskis are faithful to the characters and general premise of Tatsuo Yoshida’s late 1960s animated series, for what it’s worth. Everyone’s pretty much there: Speed Racer, his girlfriend Trixie, his parents Pops and Mom, his older brother Rex, his younger brother Spritle, and the family pet, Chim Chim the chimpanzee (whose presence here does nothing to lift the Monkey Curse of Suck that afflicts movies featuring be-clothèd primates). With the help of Sparky the mechanic, the Racers build and race premium machines in a world where cars can accelerate up to 800 kilometers an hour and hopscotch over other cars to avoid collisions, often with the help of gee-whiz gadgetry. When Rex gets tarred with scandal and dies in a mountain tunnel during the harrowing Casa Cristo rally, the racing mantle falls to Speed, who emitted motor sounds before he ever formed his first vowel. Speed shows promise with his tricked-out Mach 5 and is wooed by Royalton Industries, a corporation with a history of fixing major competitions. When Speed turns down a sponsorship offer from Royalton, his David must out-drive a slew of champion Goliaths in order to convince the audience that pro racing isn’t just a business—that it has, gosh, real heart.
Attempts to appeal to a general audience are made with a carefully chosen cast: there’s John Goodman as Pops Racer, Susan Sarandon as Mom, Matthew Fox as Racer X (that lantern jaw gives Fox the perfect look for a brooding, cartoon strongman), and Christina Ricci as Trixie. Emile Hirsch—probably most familiar to viewers as Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless—plays Speed, but any performative value he may bring to the screen is rubbed out by frenetic editing, which turns acting into a series of one-expression instants that never require the chops needed to segue that expression into others (Speed Racer is plagued with berserker editing—it’s more mash-up than movie). The Wachowskis even cast a few novelty actors and British badboys: Richard Roundtree shows up as Ben Burns, an aging Grand Prix champ; John Benfield (that fantastic mallet-face best known to North Americans as Kernan in the Prime Suspect series) has a small role as Block, a villain who knows how to use a piranha tank; and Roger Allam, as Royalton, channels Tim Curry with dishy purple verve and almost makes the movie interesting. The adult actors are good to fabulous in their roles; the child actors, on the other hands, deliver the usual child-actor pabulum: chronic stiffness on the part of Nicholas Elia, who plays Speed as a boy, and manic mugging on the part of Paulie Litt, who plays Spritle (his performance is bound to win over old aunties everywhere and it’s one which—since I’m not an old auntie—I never want to re-live).
Pardon the pun, but high-octane doesn’t begin to describe the look and feel of Speed Racer, refurbished by the Wachowskis into a candy-colored blur of fluorescent streaks, quick cuts and booming sounds. The filmmakers’ intention is hard to miss: provide a virtual reality of speed racing onscreen. Special effects have been innovated and technical conventions turned upside-down in this movie. That should be a good thing. But the Wachowskis let their greenscreen swallow them whole, and their Frankenstein monster of a movie makes monsters out of the faces that swim and blink and veer around onscreen. A cross-country rally race turns into a boggling assault of colour and motion that chases away the tension. I have never felt so bored and numb in the face of so much goddamned fanfare. The Lite-Brite backdrops and acid primaries and pastels ought to marvel, but instead they simply exhaust, and the only thing that weighs down the frantic is an anchor of schmaltz. Parents should know that Speed Racer, while serviceable as a family film and superficially novel, is the cinematic equivalent of a Big Gulp of Jolt and a bag of Fuzzy Peaches. You may as well throw your kids in a lake of Orange Crush and turn a strobe light on them for two hours—they’ll be about as over-stimulated exiting Speed Racer.
It’s a shame. The movie could have been something more. It could have been a satire on the corporate reality of professional sports, but it pussies out and makes grand claims about ideals that, these days, seem hollow. It could have electrified us with its liquid effects, but instead it’s an inert, two-hour exercise of spinning in the same spot. The characterization of the baddies is nothing new, but it’s more classic than clichéd, and the wonderful baddies are assisted by a surreal phalanx of dream-gadgets. It could have been a goddamned ride, but everything drowns in a soup of impressions that never have a chance to impress before flying off the screen. I had flashbacks to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy which, for all its look-at-me production design, and for all the waves it made when it came out in 1990, has an empty center and a lame-ass legacy. Take the kids if they’re immune to sensory overload—they’ll probably have a grand time. But the stunt casting, hip Asian stylings and novelty effects can’t give this thing the edge or texture that geek-happy adults may want to believe this thing possesses. It is what it at first appears to be—a bloated corporate product designed to sell merchandise, and, despite its message, an inadvertent endorsement of the likes of Royalton Industries rather than the Racers themselves. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on May 10, 2008.)