The hype about Speed Racer has been fairly negative, and I can only guess that's because people still have a bad taste in their mouths from The Matrix Revolutions, the most recent film directed by Speed Racer helmers the Wachowskis. In addition, I think there's been a lot of skepticism about whether the director pair could really do a kid-friendly movie after their lesbian noir flick Bound and sexy/fetishy scifi fare like the Matrix trilogy. I was dubious too, but after a few minutes of immersion in the clever, color-drenched world of Speed Racer, I was surprised to find myself becoming a believer. No shock that the visuals were brilliant, but honestly I wasn't expecting . . . fun. (Spoilers ahead, my racers.)
From the moment the movie begins with young Speed Racer in elementary school spacing out during a test by drawing pictures of cars, you know the movie isn't just going to be a lot of empty visuals and "oh look we can make live action look cartoony." For when Speed draws, the next thing you see is him zooming through a landscape that looks just like his drawing — it's a lovely, quick way of showing us the inside of a kid's imagination, as he draws himself crossing the finish line and lets out a "crowd goes wild" noise in the middle of class.
There's a lot of stuff like this scene in the movie, where kids are going nuts over pop culture — and it works. The kid excitement in Speed Racer is genuinely infectious. You'll find yourself whooping along with Speed's little brother Spridle and chimp Chim Chim when they watch anime on TV and suddenly jump inside it, fighting each other and the spikey mechas with bright CGI lines careening around their bodies, and their faces transfigured by crazed, abandoned childish delight. Maybe it's just because a lot of us who grew up with nutty, zoomy pop culture like original Japanese cartoon Speed Racer still have the walls of our minds painted with crayon-bright explosions. Whatever the reason, the Wachowskis have hit a sweet, goofy nerve here and they play it well.
The plot of the flick couldn't be simpler. Nice kid Speed Racer wants nothing more than to compete in the big leagues of racing. His family runs Racer Motors, a tiny independent car design company that turns out beauties like the Mach 5 (and later, the ultra-awesome Mach 6). After he wins his first big race, giant mega-corp businessman Royalton tries to become Speed's sponsor, promising him all the riches in the world. But Speed turns him down because he wants to stay independent with Racer Motors. That's when Royalton gets ugly and says racing is all about money and power and Speed can never hope to compete without corporate sponsorship.
Will the love of family and indie production values be able to topple big business and evil corporate overlords? And who is the mysterious Racer X who keeps helping him fight the evil Royalton thugs? That's what Speed Racer is all about. There's a heaping dose of Matrix-style politics here, and even a long speech from Royalton about the nature of power that totally felt like a satiric take on the Architect's speech in Matrix Reloaded. Luckily, we don't linger too long in the chambers of philosophy and instead head out to the glowing, crazy, hallucinogenic race track.
As I said earlier, you won't be shocked to know that the visuals in Speed Racer are seriously awesome. You've probably seen some previews by now, so you know the cars swirl and shimmy and the citiscapes are full of dazzling rays of light. Nothing on screen remains unaltered by CGI: it's augmented reality top to bottom, and the attention to detail is sometimes a little overwhelming. What may startle you, though, is the feeling you got watching The Matrix for the first time and said, "Holy fuck what the hell I have never seen that before and it looks crazy fucking great." There are a lot of things in Speed Racer your eyeballs will be experiencing for the first time — cool ways of composing scenes to make them look like cartoons, awesome concept design, and ninja fight scenes that are both exciting and silly enough for kids.
Those silly fight scenes are the other really cool thing about this flick, especially for the usually grim-and-dirty Wachowskis. A whole lot of Speed Racer is pure CGI slapstick and it's funny as hell. Blink and you'll miss some zany shit like a crazed Segway race in Royalton's tower, evil racing Vikings doing their evil Viking thang, and ongoing hijinks with Spridle and Chim Chim. Normally, I hate cute kids and monkeys in flicks, but (dare I say it) the Wachowskis did the right thing with them here. We get just enough monkey poop, and then we're back on the mesmerizing race track.
As somebody who watched the Matrix trilogy more times than I care to admit, one of the interesting things about Speed Racer was realizing that maybe those previous movies were actually a lot more tongue-in-cheek than they seemed. Or maybe the Wachowskis have finally grown a sense of humor about their previous deadly-serious, ninja-laden efforts. While Speed Racer may not go down in history like Matrix did, I think it marks a hopeful turning point in the Wachowskis' careers. If they can keep successfully switching gears like this, I think they have a lot more awesome in store for us in years to come.
In the meantime, they've given you a giant dose of fun and flash to start your summer right.
Speed Racer opens tonight.