You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn't work like that!
PopGap #25: Speed Racer (2008)
I have no history with, and therefore no nostalgic fondness for, the animated 1960s Japanese TV series Speed Racer, but am familiar enough with its style to understand that The Wachowskis have crafted a thoroughly loving homage to it with this 2008 feature film. This movie is literally dazzling, with saturated primary colors and cartoony effects in near-constant motion. It's a feat of engineering, kind of; it's the sort of art installation at which one, first, marvels at its mere existence, and, second, questions everything: form, intent and utility. It's unmistakably there, but why?
Given my past inability to align with The Wachowskis in any of their directorial endeavors (The Matrix put me to sleep on two attempts, and I reviewed Cloud Atlas and Bound on this site), I can at least offer the faint consolation of claiming Speed Racer as my new favorite of their movies (not counting the very good V for Vendetta, which they wrote but did not direct). The final race sequence is not coherent but it is neat, as it bleeds and burns from almost-live action into expressionistic retro animation. Why it takes nearly two hours to get to that point is bewildering. In what I must suspect was an effort to nod to every single character and plot point in the original 52-episode series, the movie Speed Racer winds through a relentless parade of dull cartoon tropes that would struggle to sustain my interest for 22-minutes, let alone 135 (to be fair, the last ten minutes are credits; regardless, it's at least 40 minutes too long).
Clearly the onslaught of eye candy was meant to compensate for Speed Racer's lack of substance in the overabundant story, but even the visuals vacillate between virtuoso and vacuous. A majority of the racing scenes, while full of noise and zip, have the aesthetic texture of a busy but poorly art-directed video game (the gameplay of which seems to be inspired by twin 6-year-olds smashing Hot Wheels into each other). Only a few sequences emerge from the mostly crudely designed CGI with artistic distinction: the aforementioned finale as well as a sometime-beautiful battle within a dark ice tunnel. While I can understand the conceptual genesis of making the the cars look alternately like rudimentary metal toys and completely artificial digital objects, I'm not sure if also looking mostly cheap and awful fulfilled that purpose successfully.
However, the strangest paradox of The Wachowskis' Speed Racer movie is why a live-action version was attempted at all, especially when every effort seems to have been made to render all the live-action actors and objects with cartoonish shallowness — after which they've been sandwiched between layer-upon-layer of heavily processed and intentionally unrealistic effects. A great cast — Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Roger Allam, and the engagingly lively chimpanzees "Kenzie" and "Willy"— is practically reduced to cardboard. It seems like what The Wachowskis really wanted to do was make an animated Speed Racer series and then forced all of that inspiration into entirely the wrong medium, resulting in a dull and overlong explosion of stimuli, at least 70% of which is completely forgettable. The other 30%, however, is the best stuff I've seen from them.
Speed Racer was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Andrew Kendall, who can be found on Flickchart under the username mistwhisper117. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #15 (99%, out of 1093 movies) where it's his 2nd favorite movie out of 83 on his chart based on material that originated as comics. On my chart, Speed Racer ranked at #1903 (49%), which puts it at #51 out of the 93 movies I've seen that were based on comics.
Notes on Speed Racer (2008)
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