Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Speed Racer (2008) Review

Speed Racer (2008)
Faster, Speed Racer, Faster!

The original Speed Racer anime show is one that I vaguely remember watching as a child growing up. I remember the various characters, the animation style, and the popular catchphrase “Go, Speed Racer, Go!” but little else. So when the movie adaptation was announced I got mild interest. When the Wachowski brothers, hot off their successful writing duty on V for Vendetta, were announced as writers and directors, I knew they would have a unique vision for the film like with their Matrix trilogy. But when the trailers first appeared, all expectations for the movie shot sky high as I watched in awe as the vivid colors and wild race snippets zoomed past on the screen. But the final product has given me mixed results, which is about 50-60% what I wanted and expected, but the rest is just bloated filler that needlessly prolongs the film's run time.

Plot Synopsis: Speed Racer has been in love with cars and racing all of his life, even as a child. He would always ask his brother Rex if he could drive his car, the Mach 5, around the local race track after school, to the dismay of Mom and Pops Racer. But eventually Rex starts to deal with corrupt corporations which gets him killed, and tarnishes the Racer family name. Years later, Speed has become an ace driver on the track and drives for Pops’ independent company rather than the big corporations. So when Arnold Royalton, head of Royalton Industries, makes a generous offer to Speed and is promptly turned down, Royalton vows to keep him from racing anymore. Royalton then enlists the help of numerous thugs and headhunters which forces Speed to join the CIB unit with the help of the mysterious Racer X, who may have a connection to Rex Racer, to fight the corruption.


If that sounds a bit convoluted for a seemingly simple concept, well it is. In an attempt to keep older viewers interested, the Wachowski’s try to weave in a plot involving corporate deception, stock prices, and mercenaries. But all this does is bore audiences watching the film in hope of getting to the crazy racing scenes, mostly in the first half. It seemed as if they wanted the movie to be more than just about racing and essentially hampered the film in the process. For instance, in one of the races (probably my favorite despite what I’m about to say) there are various teams working together to try and take down Speed and his group. Whenever one of them appears for the first time the film segues away from the race into a scene showing the thugs bribing these mercenaries with various riches and then back to the race where it left off. This brings the fast and flashy race to a grinding halt and the scene would’ve been stronger without their inclusion.

Thankfully though, the vividly colored world that the Wachowski’s envisioned is stunning in it’s bright, wacky beauty. The intention of making a living, breathing cartoon is perfectly realized in its mixing of live action actors and sets with computer generated backgrounds. And when the races fire up, expect to be a little overwhelmed by the blinding effects whizzing by at top speed. Cars are either flashing by or spinning in a collage of color and sparks or explode in cartoonish fireballs. All of this is shown with a clear disregard for any laws of physics and is all the better for it. I never understood the criticism for the lack of physics because frankly, if these races adhered to realistic driving in this clearly fantastical world, it would be rather boring.


The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. The best actors on display here are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as Pops and Mom Racer who portray their characters in broad, simple strokes. Pops is a hard working and stern man who is devoted to his family and Mom is caring and provides encouragement for Speed before he races. Christina Ricci also has the right amount of cheery charm as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie without being too peppy. Roger Allam is also appropriately menacing and over the top as Royalton and successfully creates a bad guy who we really want to see get his comeuppance. Where things get rocky is in Speed’s little brother Spritle and Speed himself. Spritle, as played by Paulie Litt, is one of the most annoying characters to come along since Jar Jar Binks stank up the Star Wars prequels. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes along and makes a Phantom Edit type edit here where most of Spritle’s scenes are deleted because his constant mugging and whining gets really grating. Coming off of Into the Wild, I expected a bit more from Emile Hirsch. His brooding, quiet portrayal of Speed isn’t necessarily bad, but it seems average and bland compared to all cartoon world surrounding him.

Overall, I was mostly impressed with Speed Racer because of its incredibly vibrant world, the care it took into envisioning it, and the imaginative race scenes that are unlike anything I’ve seen before. But the stretched run time (over two hours) and boring storyline take away from the experience and seem too self indulgent for be enjoyable.


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