Remember when you were a kid and you discovered the joys of coloring books? If you were like me, you just wanted to fill in the spaces between those rigid black and white lines. But there was always that showoff whiz kid who used every one of those 64 Crayons and never colored even a bit over the borders. Andy and Larry Wachowski were probably those kids. That unique combination of flashiness and rigidity is at the artificial heart of one larger-than-life movie that explodes right off the screen this weekend in theaters.
Based on a freewheeling 1960s Japanese cartoon that revolves around a family of picket-fence motor sport fanatics, “Speed Racer” is obviously built with young kids in mind, but cinema-savvy adults may have a better chance appreciating the technological wizardry that’s on display in this eye-popping orgasm of color and motion. Then again, kids will probably respond to the movie’s apple-pie America mentality and, although the directors do their best to disguise it with manic time-jumping, the plot is about as simple as it gets.
Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, a young race car driver who wants to make his family proud by restoring his disgraced brother’s name. How to do that? Racing, of course. Mom and Pops Racer (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) head this single-minded extended family, which also includes a loyal mechanic (Kick Gurry), chaste girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), and a younger brother (Paulie Litt) with a Jersey accent whose constant companion is a monkey.
The world of “Speed Racer” is a place where power-hungry corporate trolls wear purple suits and gold chains and a pure white glass of milk is the celebratory drink in the winner’s circle. Since subtlety is nowhere to be found, the actors are merely there to serve the Racer universe. Ricci and Goodman are especially up to the task. With her big, unblinking doe eyes and his firm, yet Brady-like delivery, they actually seem like they stepped right out of a cartoon…
which is exactly what the Wachowskis, directing their first film since “The Matrix” trilogy, are going for. Essentially, they’re just trading one form of animation for another. Gone is the crude, old-fashioned animation of the ‘60s. Jittery movements, badly-dubbed dialogue, and stopped frames have been replaced by—no pun intended—speed, and lots of it. “Speed Racer,” shot almost entirely on a greenscreen set with brightly colored costumes and props and computer-generated backgrounds, is constantly moving.
The tug-of-war between inventive visual storytelling and narrative cohesion is apparent from the very first sequence, a protracted flash-back-and-forth car chase that makes it difficult to tell how or where one plotline ends and the next one begins. Like anime (the current cultural juggernaut that the original cartoon influenced), however, it just takes awhile to adjust to the film’s herky-jerky rhythms and movements. There is also something freeing about watching this movie because it establishes early on that it’s not playing by certain cinematic rules.
Criticize it all you want for pandering to the fast-paced style of editing that modern audiences are used to, but “Speed Racer” is way ahead of you. It doesn’t play to our expectations; it leaves them in the dust. The Wachowski brothers push the boundaries of film language and storytelling through seemingly impossible camera angles, constantly moving split-screen transitions, and split-second close-ups and zoom outs.
One rule the film would have been better off adhering too, however, is that any overwhelming sensory experience will have more effect the shorter it is. He may be lightning fast on the track and be restricted by none of the laws of physics, but Speed Racer’s movie clocks in at about two hours and nine minutes. There is so little downtime, too, that a couple lower-energy scenes actually seem like endings.
It may not be an absorbing emotional experience as much as it is an unrelenting spectacle, but “Speed Racer” is overflowing with enough energy to make you ‘feel’ like you’ve really seen something. If you believe, like Speed and his family do, that a car is a “living, breathing” thing, then the movie as a whole may live for you as well. Whether you are put off by the constant assault on the senses is anyone’s guess. If you’re like me, though, you’ll be content just to enjoy a ride unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And in times when everything has old is new again, pulling off that feat is a wonder in itself.
[youtube OYgfHR8L_A0 nolink]