There is one way that it’s possible to enjoy and respect Speed Racer on its own terms, and not have to go through any irritating “man, just shut off your brain!” hoops to get there: there are many places where the interplay of colors and shapes and movement is really quite beautiful. Maybe that sounds snarky, but it isn’t meant to. The palette in the film is something extraordinary, and if you can ignore that part of your thinking mind that wants those colorful shapes to reflect back some kind of meaning, but just enjoy them for their form and texture, it’s hypnotic. Not at all dissimilar, in fact, from one of my very favorite animated films ever made, Norman McLaren’s “Begone Dull Care”.* With the very important caveat that “Begone Dull Care” is just shy of eight minutes long, while Speed Racer, including credits, clocks in at two hours and 15 minutes.
However, the film’s problem isn’t that it’s 135 minutes of non-stop colorgasms, which I had feared from the trailers and which would probably have some fairly serious detrimental effects on the audience’s brain chemistry. Indeed it’s the opposite: the magnificent color all comes during the racing scenes that are by any yardstick the reason we’re going to see the film, and those scenes account for at most a half an hour of the total, and those thirty minutes tend to be so completely stylised not just in production design but in editing and composition, that we cannot really follow what’s going on in the theoretically-awesome races.
Actually, the deeper problem is that fully three-quarters of a film about stylised racing is not about racing whatsoever, but about the treacly drama surrounding a sweet and loving nuclear family, or more damningly, about the grinding machinations of a global corporation in a massive power grab predicated on fixing the results of sponsored races, bringing an incoherent note of adult esoterica to a film that sets out to be a “gee whiz!” ride for the kids, in the finest tradition of Star Wars: Episode I.
(Really, if we want to pull this all back as far as it goes, the ultimate problem is that this is a film based on a lousy cartoon from the ’60s that can only be properly called a “classic” through the muddied lens of Boomer nostalgia. I’m not sure when anime turned into an proper art form Japan, but it was deep into the 1980s when smart, good anime finally filtered into the West).
But back to that stylisation. As directed by the Wachowskis, it’s not surprising that Speed Racer is all about visual excess, but given the brothers’ track record with inventing new and exciting ways to carpet bomb visual excess all over the audience, it’s at least a bit of a shock how very poor the effects look. This you probably know, if you are interested in the movie at all, because it’s been trumpeted in all the press: Speed Racer is the latest entry in that rather eyebrow-raising new branch of filmmaking, in which large portions of the film consists of actors and props in front of a greenscreen, with all the backgrounds to be filled in later. The first thing that must be noted is that some of the sets in Speed Racer are actual, honest-to-God sets, although most of them aren’t; the second thing that must be noted is that the decision to depict some sets as computer backdrops is arbitrary at best. But this is a matter for the nitpickers.
For those sets which aren’t, the greater issue is how they look, sometimes brightly candy-colored in a terribly appealing way, sometimes like a really high-class video game, and far too often like a really shitty video game (the exteriors in the neighborhood where our lovely nuclear family lives are especially atrocious). “Deliberately stylised!” is the response. Fine, there’s no arguing taste, but it’s quite impossible to say that in all but a few moments, the combination of live-action actors and CGI landscapes is a mess, with the humans floating and sometimes surrounded by halos. Four years after Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and three years after Revenge of the Sith, you’d never think that Speed Racer was anything other than the first tentative step towards properly integrating CGI and practical scenery.
As for the racing scenes themselves, which are essentially animated throughout and therefore much less sensitive to that particular flaw, I have nothing particular to say. They are pretty, but they are almost impossible to follow without crowd reactions. It’s trite to say that huge CGI action sequences are like watching somebody else playing a video game, and in this case inaccurate; I have played many a racing video game, and these scenes would not be playable as a video game. Nobody could follow the action for more than a few seconds.
At last, we come to the actors and the characters; an afterthought here just as they’re an afterthought in the movie. Really, what can one say about acting in a film like this? They’re standing in rooms that don’t exist, responding to stimuli that don’t exist. Nobody can act in those conditions (though the cast of Sin City would have you believe otherwise), although Susan Sarandon is at least a touch less convincing than the rest of the cast. Anyway, we’ve got Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer, son of small business owner Pops Racer (John Goodman) and Mom Racer (Sarandon), brother of the long-lost and disgraced Rex Racer (Scott Porter), asexually dating Trixie (Christina Ricci), warding off the Ee-vil Capitalist Royalton (Roger Allam), and fighting the new world order alongside the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who is always described as “the mysterious Racer X” in every document ever composed about any incarnation of Speed Racer. What these people do, when they are not racing or gawking at races, is entirely besides the point, but at least there are no awkwardly profound lines of dialogue – the script is pleasingly utilitarian, even if it is mostly boring as paste.
Also, Speed has a little brother named Spritle (Paul Litt), who is always accompanied by a chimpanzee named Chim Chim (played by chimpanzees Willy and Kenzie, who both have their own IMDb pages, although Willy’s is inaccurate), for no reason other than because the cartoon had those characters, and whose purpose in the current film is to grind anything remotely interesting to the viewer over the age of eleven into the dirt with a steel-clad boot toe. If nothing else, Speed Racer does continue to prove the immutable fact that no movie is completely without merit if a chimpanzee is featured in it; at any rate, Chim Chim is a significantly more appealing character than Spritle.