Oh, how I wanted to like Speed Racer. I remembered those years in the mid-seventies when the theme song announced the beginning of a show filled with racing, chases, fights, comedy, and a little bit of love. To give the Wachowski brothers a little bit of credit, their script and directing captured beautifully the style and action of the classic anime. It’s too bad they didn’t add a decent story.
With the Summer Blockbuster season of 2008 in full swing, Speed Racer spins the wheels of the typical action film in every bad way possible. I actually lost count at the number of times I actually rolled my eyes — I think they were moving faster than the iconic Mach Five at some points.
Speed Racer stars Emile Hirsch in the title role (that was rumored to have been offered to Charlie Sheen at one point). I really don’t know how Hirsch managed to pull it off, but his Speed was actually more two-dimensional than the original cartoon. A true accomplishment. John Goodman, no stranger to cartoons-turned-into-bad-movies, fills the very large shirt of Pops Racer, and probably has the best and most sentimental lines of the film. Trust me, that’s not saying much.
Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci are Mom and Trixie respectively, and I really can’t help but to think that they actually had to shut off their brains to say some of the lines in the film. Surely, someone said to the Wachowskis what Harrison Ford said to George Lucas at one point during the filming of another, far-more-successful summer film: “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”
Speaking of excrement, it manages to work its way into the script, literally in the form of “chim-chim cookies,” which probably goes over the head of its target audience. We saw it with “A Night at the Museum,” and for some reason, it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe we need to contact Andy and Larry Wachowski and politely say, “You can throw this shit, guys, but you can’t write it.”
Seriously, The Wachowski Brothers are better than this. They really are. Unfortunately, this film reveals many of the same faults that were seen throughout the two Matrix sequels. Some films are built around great stories. Other films are built around great scenes. Sadly, films like Speed Racer are built around great concepts, and nothing more. No, wait. It’s not concepts. It was built around a visual idea.
Alas, it’s this visual theme that will appeal to boys under 12 and anyone whose exposure to anime is limited to the Speed Racer cartoon, which was an English adaptation of Mach GoGoGo. Even with Space Cruiser Yamato (later Americanized into Star Blazers) had more depth than Speed Racer ever did. Of course, Gatchaman is what really turned anime onto its heels during those days. (Do yourself a favor and bypass the Battle of the Planets DVDs and go straight for the original Japanese subtitled Gatchaman.) Speed Racer was the first anime to gain popularity in the United States, and literally broke ground for the series to follow.
A few years ago, Speed Racer was played on MTV and created a whole new legion of fans – or did it? This isn’t exactly a rabid following. A true test of a cartoon—er, excuse me—anime’s longevity is how well the stories hold up when we return to watch them as adults. As much as I regret saying it, Speed Racer didn’t hold up to that very simple test. It was built around the ludicrous, but that’s part of what made it work.
Sadly, the film version of Speed Racer is so over-the-top with its myriad of flybys, twists, turns, flashes, and color streaks, that the viewer is so overwhelmed with visual candy that it begins to feel like a sugar rush. Also like a sugar rush, it eventually makes the stomach churn. Throw in a few monkey-throwing-feces jokes and boy-flipping-off-the-bad-guy jokes, and we have the the true target audience of this film: Everyone under ten.
Much press had been made how the Wachowskis wanted to make a family film that everyone could enjoy. Well, I’m still waiting to see it. Speed Racer has none of the depth, grit, passion, or wonder that we saw in The Matrix. It tries to be subversive like V for Vendetta, but in the end, the only subversion is against anything and everything that makes for a good film.