It’s possible, at the basest level, to say that “Speed Racer,” directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski of “The Matrix” fame and opening nationwide on May 9, is a success. As a big-screen live-action adaptation of the late ‘60s Japanese cartoon, the movie is faithful to a fault.
Like in the cartoon, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is addicted to racing. His family, headed by Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon), is in the racing business. His girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), is a racing nut, too. Unfortunately for the Racers, they can’t just be a racing family. Speed’s life as a racecar driver gets him all mixed up in international plots—in the case of the movie, something nefarious is afoot to take over commerce or some such nonsense.
Really, the plot doesn’t matter. “Speed Racer” revels in the cliché of style of substance. Garish colors, hyperactive backgrounds that move and swirl behind talking heads, and gaudy racecars and ostentatious racetracks were all part of “Speed Racer” the TV cartoon and they’re utterly paramount to “Speed Racer” as the big-screen live-action cartoon. Even the actors look like they could’ve jumped right out of TV land into real life: Hirsch, clad in tight t-shirts and ultra-skinny jeans, conjures memories of the animated Speed, and Goodman is a dead ringer for the lumbering-patriarch-with-a-heart-of-gold of the Racer family. Even the score by Michael Giacchino pays homage to the original series through excellent compositions that meld the show’s themes with the spirit of his score for “The Incredibles.”
But when it comes right down to it, the Wachowskis faithfulness is the movie’s biggest fault. By replicating the cartoon almost brushstroke-for-brushstroke—or, in this case, pixel for brushstroke—the Wachowskis present the audience with what is essentially a super high tech fancy version of live action interacting with animation. Except it’s not live action. Not really. And it’s not animation. Sort of.
Take the movie’s first major set piece, a rally race in which all the drivers are up to no good and have secondary—and sometime tertiary—reasons for wanting to win the race. The rally begins in a vaguely Egyptian town before heading out to the desert where, apparently, the sand is packed tight enough to drive on. Speed’s Mach 5 and other cars and their drivers—including Racer X (Matthew Fox) and the B squad from the Hanna Barbera cartoon “Wacky Racers”—engage in a sort of ballet of flipping over one another, punching drivers in mid air, and lobbing weapons—including a mechanized beehive launched via a car-mounted catapult—at each other. All the scene is missing is someone shrieking, “Now this is podracing!”
It’s all very pretty to look at and breathtaking. Except none of it’s real. Well, maybe the actors in the cars, and even they are suspect most of the time. These races, these cars, these environments don’t exist. So complete is this digital emersion that even when Speed is sitting in real car it becomes suspect that the car is actually real. But we’re supposed to believe that Speed is actually in a car, that he’s actually driving, that he’s actually in danger. At least I think so. There is so much digital manipulation infringing on what little live action there is that the line between the two becomes blurred. The digital destruction is so total that you can’t even swoon over the mean machines tearing up the racetracks. For a movie ostensibly about cars and racing to offer zero opportunity to fetishize the automobiles at the center of it must be held in cinematic contempt.
Not helping matters any is that no one in this better-than-it-deserves cast is really able to work their talents. Over the course of the 129-minute runtime of “Speed Racer”—which is far too long to be subjected to such digital assault on the senses—the actors never have a chance to act. How could they? Most of the time they’re working in a green-screen environment. Rather than acting, they’re reacting. Watch out! A car crash over here! Look! Something quasi-futuristic and interesting! Terrence Stamp famously complained that when he “acted” with Natalie Portman in “Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace” he was really interacting with a cardboard cut out of her. I’d be surprised if the actors in “Speed Racer” even had a set of Hot Wheels to give them guidance.
Goodman and Sarandon try, valiantly, to overcome the green-screen-ness, and it’s obvious Ricci is having a good time in her various skimpy Japanimation-inspired outfits and short-cropped hair and lines like “Cool beans.” Fox, surprisingly, is the stand-out. Racer X has the better backstory, set up in seemingly endless exposition at the start of the movie, and Fox mines it for all that it’s worth. But since he’s on screen very little, it doesn’t really help matters much.
All things considered, the only way “Speed Racer” could have been a better adaptation of its source material is if all “reality” was cut out of it. Animate the humans with the same care and detail that the cars and tracks are animated and you have a fairly complex piece of eye candy. Truly, the digital work here is staggering. But reliance on good digital effects isn’t enough—especially when the filmmakers seem confused about whether to make their movie animated or live-action. The two styles of filmmaking come with two entirely different sets of responsibilities and emotional triggers.
The Wachowskis want it both ways with “Speed Racer” and don’t accomplish either. As it is, “Speed Racer” is a fairly confused work of technical trickery masquerading as neo cinematic Pop Art.
Read this review on Fulvue Drive-In