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Speed Racer

The Wachowskis Are Back

After a five-year hiatus, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) are back behind the camera with Speed Racer, the family-friendly, live-action adaptation of the 60s Japanese animation series (released in Japan as Mach GoGoGo). Their hiatus (they adapted and produced V for Vendetta, but didn’t direct) hasn’t lessened the Wachowski Brothers’ desire to create new worlds that exist only as binary code inside a server somewhere. Unfortunately, someone neglected to point out that moviegoers over the age of six will struggle to keep their attention from wandering during Speed Racer’s two hour-plus running time.

Young, impetuous, stubborn and obsessed with racing cars, the aptly named Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) can’t wait to follow in the footsteps of his late brother, Rex (Scott Porter), and become a racing car driver. Like Speed, Rex couldn’t get enough of racing cars, sadly losing his life in a mysterious car wreck years earlier that still haunts Speed. Despite his brother’s death, Speed can’t wait to race his new car, the Mach 5, built by his father, Pops (John Goodman), in a local competition. With super-supportive girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci) and Mom (Susan Sarandon), plus pesky younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Spritle’s pet chimp, Chim-Chim, Speed has more than enough to keep him occupied as he begins his racing career.

E.B. Royalton (Roger Allam), the chairman and CEO of the Royalton Corporation shows up at the Racer family’s door (literally, he drops out of the sky in a Harrier-style jet) and makes Speed an offer he can’t refuse: join Royalton’s racing team as one of his top drivers in exchange for truckloads of money and fame. Speed refuses, preferring to stay with the family team. Royalton doesn’t take kindly to Speed’s refusal and directs his drivers to derail Speed from an upcoming World Racing League race by any and all means. With Speed outnumbered by Royalton’s henchmen, a strangely familiar former rival, Racer X (Matthew Fox), steps in and asks Speed for help in exposing Royalton’s race fixing as part of a team that includes Speed, Racer X, and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain), a driver “owned” by one of Royalton’s associates, Cruncher Block (John Benfield).

Filmed entirely in front of greenscreens using high-definition cameras, Speed Racer is wall-to-wall, psychedelic eye candy, pure cartoon-inspired spectacle bound to suck in small children and effects geeks. With its burn-out-your-eyeballs bright, pulsating, neon color scheme, gravity- and reality-defying cars and gladiatorial-style car races dubbed “car-fu” (seriously) and deep-focus cinematography, Speed Racer is the closest any film studio has come (or is likely come) to transferring an anime/videogame aesthetic into a live-action setting without losing much in the translation between mediums. That, of course, would push anyone’s inner six-year old into an ecstatic state, but what about your inner eight or ten-year old? He (or she) won’t be nearly as thrilled with Speed Racer.

Why the Wachowski Brothers didn’t go with CG actors instead of human actors pasted into computer-animated backgrounds is hard to understand. The Wachowski Brothers have shown less and less interest in telling stories involving recognizable human beings and more and more interest in exploiting computer technology (just call it the Lucas effect). While the performances in Speed Racer are obviously better than the painfully stilted performances found in Lucas’ Star Wars-prequel trilogy, the Wachowski Brothers didn’t ask their actors to do much except look off camera every other shot, grimace or smile and throw off a banal line (or two or three) while pretending they’re driving one of Speed Racer’s computer-animated cars through a seemingly endless series of Hot Wheels-inspired racing environments.

The Wachowski Brothers also saw fit to inject a deeply cynical, anti-corporate message into the film. The Royalton Corporation stand against everything Speed and his tightly knit family stand for: family-owned business, people before profits and compassion instead of ruthlessness. Of course, Royalton Corporation isn’t necessarily evil, but its cartoonish chairman and CEO, E.B. Royalton, certainly is.

Regardless of their intentions, Warner Brothers and their parent company, Time-Warner, a mega-corporation in its own right, are going to merchandise, license, and otherwise exploit every financial advantage possible associated with Speed Racer. But, hey, it might make a few, liberal-minded audience members smile while CGI cars battle, if not to the death then to the defeat of all but one.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars