Thanks to Travis Neeley for his second contribution to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser. This time around, Travis didn't exactly make a request, so much as offer me a present: he wanted me to select a movie that I'd already reviewed but had changed my mind about in the intervening years, and revisit it. It was an easy choice to make: my unreasonably hostile initial review of this film has been bothering me for years.

In fairness to those of us who got it wrong back in 2008, Speed Racer was harder to make sense of when it was new. To that point, sibling director-writer-producers the Wachowskis had only been involved in the creation of various adults-only action fare: the lesbian crime thriller Bound, The Matrix and its sequels, and (as writers and producers only) the satiric comic book adaptation V for Vendetta. Other than a certain joy in the freedom from physics that it shares with The Matrix, there's not much about the candy-colored children's movie Speed Racer that particularly resembles any of those other films, particularly when we move beyond the realm of narrative content and into the craft of filmmaking itself, in which respect Speed Racer owes more to the realm of the avant-garde than it does the tradition of classical Hollywood continuity practices, which the Matrix films still largely do even at their most bent (in fairness, Speed Racer borrows more from anime than anything else, but we'll get there). Eight years on, the Wachowskis have added Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Sense8 to their CV, and suddenly Speed Racer feels a lot less like an outlier: now that the sisters' career consists in large part of making visually overstimulating fantasies pieced together like a music video made according to the principles of Russian montage theory, there's at least something concrete in which to ground Speed Racer. Even as I concede that the editing (by Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg) is still a hell of a lot more difficult here than in anything the filmmakers have overseen before or since.

The film is an adaptation of the North American version of a 1967 anime series, the best-known work of Tatsunoko Productions; it is a show whose charm is no greater than any of the other desperately cheap animated series produced in Japan around the same time, though it has the benefit of a pretty terrific theme song composed by Koshibe Nobuyoshi to have helped keep it alive in the memories of aging boomers. It's certainly nothing like the kaleidoscopic orgy of color and shapes that the Wachowskis made of it with the assistance of production designer Owen Paterson, costume designer Kym Barrett, and cinematographer David Tattersall. The plot, however, remains essentially similar to the kinds of things that the show dealt with: there's this kid, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), who comes from a family tradition of race car enthusiasts, probably because with the surname "Racer", it was easier just to give into it. Pops Racer (John Goodman) is a designer and engineer, who with his wife Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) owns and operates Racer Motors, a scrappy little mom-and-po... Anyway, they're independents in an increasingly corporate-dominated industry, their reputation resting primarily on the ingenuity of Pops's creations and the legendary skill of their eldest son, Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who died many years earlier on a famously dangerous rally, the Casa Cristo 5000.

The film starts on the moment of Speed's greatest triumph: he wins a major race while just barely failing to take the course record held by his brother in the greatest triumph of his own career. This brings Speed to the attention of the entire world, and the sponsors are clamoring at his feet: the most clamorous is a gregarious slimeball named Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), who wants to make Speed the latest in his stable of world-class racers, and is willing to promise the Racer family the moon to entice the boy. But Speed is quite the traditionalist, and doesn't want to let the ol' family business turn into one more line-item on a corporate spreadsheet, so he declines. At this point, Royalton uses all the forces that a heavily corrupt sporting industry can supply - that's a lot of corruption - to bury the Racers under bullshit lawsuits and tarnish Speed's own reputation. Soon, the only way Speed can win back his good name and prove that Royalton is all kinds of pure evil is to team up with Racer X (Matthew Fox), a conspicuously mysterious masked man who can drive better than anyone else in the world, and Taeko Togokahn (Rain), the scion of another massive industrial corporation that makes key components of the very best racing cars, along with the support of his helicopter-pilot girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). And as part of this team, he must win the very same Casa Cristo 5000 where his brother met his doom.

All well and good, if maybe a touch esoteric in some of the particulars (the actual conflict driving the most of the middle of the film - corporate gamesmanship, and the institutionalised corruption at the highest levels of athletic sponsorship - is beyond the ken of any reasonable children's movie, though Royalton is a hissable enough villain that it doesn't particularly matter). It is of course entirely inappropriate that this has a running time of 135 minutes, but I will say about the Wachowskis' screenplay: it is jam-packed with a never-ending array of stuff, adding and subtracting subplots and layering in flashbacks all through the first half-hour in a largely successful attempt to make sure that the film never slows down (as is, of course, entirely appropriate for a film with "racer" right there in the title). Not all of the stuff is equally good. Even allowing that this is a children's movie when you get right down it it, and children's movies have a longstanding tradition of beefing up the role of the Designated Audience Surrogate Kid, I insist that Speed Racer goes in for too much of Spritle (Paulie Litt), the youngest of the Racer brothers, a pudgy candy enthusiast and general-purpose awkward nerd, and too readily aligns itself to his perspective, despite his almost-complete lack of importance to any plot development. And it probably has a touch too little of Mom and Pops, though what movie ever had too much of either Sarandon or Goodman?

Regardless of all that, here's the thing about Speed Racer: seriously, fuck the plot. It's boilerplate with only the slight gloss of noncommittal science-fiction to give it any real identity, and most of the characters are undercooked - Hirsch is a charmless actor, and while Ricci looks amazingly perfect in the role of a live-action anime girl, she's given practically nothing to do besides spit out reaction shots, and the film offers nobody else to give any emotional depth to the thing. What the film offers instead is an astonishingly rich, astonishingly persistent arrangement of colors, shapes, and movement, filling every minute of the feature and several of the credits with an ebullient exercise in kinetic energy and pop art fantasy (the thing I got most profoundly wrong in my original review: suggesting that only about thirty minutes of the film was operating at this level. In fact, there's hardly a ten-second span where the Wachowskis let up on the florid stylisation). The film, shot digitally against greenscreens and then fleshed out with the most hectic world Industrial Light and Magic could concoct on an indefensibly large budget - well-spent, but it's here that we see the birth of the trend of Warner Bros. giving the Wachowskis a pile of cash that would never come back on the back of such a blatantly non-mainstream "mainstream" film - is full of every hyper-saturated color you could want for, eagerly sacrificing realism in favor of bold four-color skies and backgrounds. The early flashbacks to Speed's childhood feature skies the thick blue of crayons and houses standing as slabs of cheerful yellows against that sky, and there's no real sense of physical plausibility to any of it, even as ILM was devoting its considerable talent to making the texture seems physically tangible.

That's where the film's style starts, not where it ends. More than any other movie I can personally name, Speed Racer has given considerable thought to how the visual language of manga and anime function, and have put considerable, successful effort into replicating that language through editing and framing. I could readily add another 1300 words to the 1300 I've already written just talking about how Speed Racer is cut together and still not feel that I'd done a good job of it, while undoubtedly boring all of you to hell on top of it. So let's just try for the short version. One of the things the film does superbly well is to incorporate some highly idiosyncratic transitions, in which a foreground element serves as a wipe, of sorts: a character's head will appear in one space, and they'll walk across frame (or the camera pans past them, it's the same effect either way), and we'll see another space appear behind them, and they're also present in that space. It also relies extensively on graphic matches, replicating the shape and composition of one frame in the next, and on the audio version of the graphic match, in which a fragment of one line answers the fragment of the line previous, said perhaps by a different character in a different space. And so on, and so forth. The main effect of all this is the creation of an uninterrupted flow: there's almost no sense of the film having discrete sequences or scenes, just a series of events tumbling one after the next. It is very much the feeling one gets from plowing through a comic book, letting the images all blur together in an undifferentiated stream, and if it sounds a little tiring, it honestly probably is. This is a lot of stimulation packed into an extensive running time, and it doesn't really understand things like "moderation" or "the rules of human visual perception".

But taken in little, or even medium-size bites, it's marvelous, creating a perpetual motion machine that somewhat creates the impression that all those colors and shapes are falling towards us, or us towards them - somehow, anyway, we're diving right in to the overwhelming mise en scène like a dive into a Technicolor waterfall. The images are all a perfect evocation of the limited anime style that the original Speed Racer was made in: blur lines for backgrounds, dramatic angles of fixed-expression close-ups, strong poses rather than natural human movement. It wants very badly to look like a cartoon, from the swaths of solid colors everywhere right down to the jerky movements of crowds and the way that flashbulb flares are all perfect circles with a cross-shaped point of light in the middle. It's a movie that's simply joyful to look at, and that joy never lets up across more than two hours. It's just so much movie, and while I wouldn't want everything to be this over-the-top in every way, I'm deeply happy that this exists in all its shameless excess.