It's hard to believe it was almost 10 years ago that the Wachowski Brothers tipped Hollywood on its ear with 'The Matrix'. That movie successfully converted storytelling techniques pioneered in anime to live-action. The result: one of the most visually influential films of the 1990s.
Fans know well that the Matrix sputtered out in its sequels, introducing convoluted plot elements that drained the adrenaline energy from the series and left fans scratching their head.
Sadly, that whole experience is encapsulated in a single film their newest effort: 'Speed Racer'.
The film tells the story of young Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), part of the Racer family which includes the patriarchal engineering genius Pops (John Goodman) as well as his driving wunderkind older-brother Rex (Scott Porter). Speed idolizes Rex and loves racing. Rex has a falling out with Pops when he decides to sign with a corporate sponsor, leaving Racer motors behind. Not long after he's killed in a race crash. Speed grows up to become Rex's equal behind the wheel but eventually finds himself in the same trap that Rex fell into, with greedy sponsors pressuring him to sign, and threatening to bring ruin on the Racer family of he doesn't.
That plot sure seems simple when encapsulated into a paragraph like that. How the Wachowskis manage to make it seem so gosh-darn convoluted on-screen is a puzzler.
The wildly uneven movie careens between wild action and tedious exposition. On the one hand you have the hyper-cartoony race sequences that mimic the old shows with glossy modern CGI effects. The energy generated by these is then promptly sapped by unnecessarily wordy expository sequences.
I suspect the Wachowskis were too often striving for something elegant and ornate when something simple (and perhaps clichéd) would have served the pacing of the movie better.
To set up the main conflict, the villain of the piece, Royalton, lectures Speed on the secret history of racing. The sequence seems as if it goes on for ten minutes. It's extremely tedious and as an adult, I really came away confused by what the message of the scene was.
A much simpler proclamation of "We're in it for the money. The races are fixed. They've always been fixed. We'll fix you and your family too if you don't get in line," would have served just as nicely and we could have been on to the next race.
The races are meant to be the showpiece of the movie.
In the same way "The Matrix" mined the ballistic ballet of "Ghost in the Shell" for its visual style, "Speed Racer" aims to replicate the cartoon world of the original show. It's an artificial place where racetracks built from an unknown material twist and arc through roller coaster loops. A place where cars can flip, fly and bounce off each other without exploding into fiery balls of wreckage (except when they're supposed to). In the world of "Speed Racer", the sky is always blue and the racing arena contains every color of the rainbow.
Many will love the eye-candy portions of the movie. There are certainly several spectacular sequences that recall the cartoon but spin it in a compelling live-action way. Parts of it are truly beautiful. However, there are equally as many parts that just read to my eye like Easter eggs in a blender: the screen just seems a wash of luminous colors and glossy highlights, without any discernable shapes to latch onto.
I'm being serious when I caution epileptics to avoid this film.
Where the movie works best is in the scenes that conjure of a childlike sense of wonder. The core theme, that we need to be inspired, and also to work to inspire others, is a powerful one.
The premise of the movie, that the game is rigged to suit the greedy and that greed is robbing us of our sense of wonder…that premise should resonate loudly given the current state of the world. Sadly, the movie doesn't rise above its own artifice and fan those flames of inspiration.
Too ponderous for young children, too shallow for adults, 'Speed Racer' spins on for about an hour longer than it should. While there are touches of charm, wonder, humor and joy, 'Speed Racer' too often scrapes against the wall of its own, overwrought making.