review for Speed Racer on AllMovie

Speed Racer (2008)
by Cammila Collar review

The Wachowski Brothers' CG-fueled futuristic adventure Speed Racer delivers on every promise. An adaptation of the '60s Japanese cartoon that was among the first anime to hit the States, the movie follows through on every element that endeared the furiously high-strung show to its audience, and offers giant, hypnotically strobing neon signs screaming "FUN! FUN! FUN!" to all viewers who go to the movies looking for a good time.

You don't really need to have seen the original series to get what they were going for here -- catching a parody of it on Family Guy or The Simpsons imparts the basic idea. Speed Racer is about shows of over-the-top intensity: screams and gasps, rapid-fire dialogue, and more highest-of-the-high-stakes good vs. evil intrigue than the world of car racing could conceivably house outside this flashy fantasy universe. Even without the film's other successes, the Wachowskis' rendering of that Day-Glo universe is reason enough for fans of enjoy-the-ride cinema to check it out. It's set in the original series' era of around 1967 -- if 1967 were the future. And the awesomely absurd melted-candy whirlwind that makes up every scene's art direction is just the beginning (think Brady Bunch sets on acid); the movie's more fantastical locales make the phrase "eye candy" sound like weak sauce. Speed's trip to a plush-and-plastic corporate R&D facility is like a zillion-dollar science-lab version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, and that doesn't even touch on the races -- of which there are a few. They're set on tracks like space-age, black-lit roller coasters and employ entertaining and remarkably consistent reinventions of physics.

It's that epic, candy-coated-PCP intensity that really packages the whole film up as a faithful adaptation, though. The Wachowskis dreamed up an insane plot that could support the fantastically ridiculous fierceness that's so inherent to the franchise's style, balancing the dramatics stroke for stroke with funny, well-paced, and very family-friendly humor. This was, after all, a kids' show -- and Speed Racer is a PG movie. Fans who fondly remember Speed's race-track rivals flying off the road into violent, unforgiving explosions may be disappointed here to see most casualties fleeing their flaming wreckage in escape pods. It's a necessary change to make the film consumable for today's kids (or, maybe more accurately, today's parents), but younger viewers still might drop out before the end -- two hours and 15 minutes is a long time for a sugar high. There's a fair amount of wordy exposition that can seem like a bit much, but the script is keen on spelling out the things that make all the emotional bombast so necessary. They're simple and loudly broadcasted ideas (Family is important! Racing is awesome!), but Speed Racer wouldn't be Speed Racer if there weren't hurricanes of emotion and looks of desperate determination flying around -- both of which, by the way, star Emile Hirsch pulls off tremendously, especially with nothing but a green screen for inspiration.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Hirsch, with his Tiger Beat doe eyes and heart-shaped face, looks like an anime character. Christina Ricci, who plays his helicopter-flying girlfriend, Trixie, has been described this way for years, and the rest of the cast, who otherwise look like normal humans, clearly took extremely nuanced direction to capture that old-school anime style. If you look carefully, you might notice scenes of dialogue where actors hold a fixed, intense expression in their eyes as they articulate wildly with their mouth -- recalling the feel of hand-drawn animation, in which artists would animate only a character's mouth to save money. Likewise, look for the way Paulie Litt strikes lighting-fast, freeze-frame poses as little brother Spritle, or listen for the way Matthew Fox evokes the baritone gravitas of dubbed kung fu villains as the mysterious Racer X. The film is also littered with deliberate misuses of parallax, evoking the feeling of 2-D animation with very 3-D elements. It's impressive that, with everything else about the movie that goes bounding calculatedly over the top, the Wachowski's kept this element reeled in. But then, they had to pick something.