Speed Racer
Oh, computers. Is there anything you can’t do?

Theatrical Release Date: 05/09/2008
Directors: Andy & Larry Wachowski
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Paulie Litt, Roger Allam, Matthew Fox, Kick Gurry

What do you get when you mix one part cult cartoon, one part “The Matrix” and seven parts hallucinogenic, Technicolor, epileptic, CGI firestorm? The Wachowski brothers’ take on “Speed Racer”, obviously.

Now, I was never a big fan of the cartoon. I don’t know the back story and I always thought there was something off about a racing kid with a chimp friend and a mysterious Racer X who was always helping him out. What I can commend the filmmakers on is finding a way to bring such a outlandish and colorful world to life.

I went into the film expecting an utter crapfest, with little appeal to anyone over the age of consent in most states. Instead, I received a frenetic ball of energy, surprisingly restrained acting performances and was at least mildly entertained for most of the film’s 129 minute runtime … wait … 129 minutes! Holy spumoni, race fans … this “kid-friendly” flick is over two hours long?!?

Yes it is, and you will feel it. For all the good that happens, there are numerous slow-down, “heartfelt” scenes trying to beef up the emotional content of the film. Someone please get the Wachowskis an editor. Oh, they had two? Okay, get them two more because there’s an entire plot point that took about 25 minutes that was absolutely unnecessary to the rest of the film. Message to Andy and Larry: Sometimes, you have to let go of a few things – as less really can be more.

I will (sadly) admit that there were a number of elements that this film got right. The background/origin for the characters was handled nicely, interplaying flashbacks with a race to keep it lively and still surprisingly informational. I though this film had a real chance of surprising me because of the opening 15 minutes … then the rest of it happened and my initial hopes were cooled to lukewarm status.

The racing, while wildly over-the-top, and bordering on visually unhealthy for anyone to see that many colors speed across your retinas, was pretty fun. As a good friend of this site remarked, the trailers had the feel of the videogame, “F-Zero”. That part did come to fruition. The tracks are physics-defying and there were a few times that I wish I’d taken dramamine before entering the theater. It’s crazy and completely unrealistic … but fairly fun, nonetheless.

Also, I thought the family dynamic would be a huge problem. I love John Goodman, I like Susan Sarandon and Christine Ricci, and I have a don’t care/don’t really care attitude towards Emile Hirsch. Putting them all together in the same room in a film of this type screamed disaster to me but I think it worked. The film calls for a very off-kilter center of gravity for the family and I think the cast was able to convey that ably.

And after filming “The Matrix” trilogy in Australia, the Wachowskis made sure to include numerous Australian actors … which is a soft spot for me. While actually filmed mostly in Germany (and via more green screens than a tennis tournament), I appreciate they still worked in the Down Under vibe.

Still, all that goodwill doesn’t quite add up to being able to easily recommend this film. The “humor” derived from Speed Racer’s little brother and his chimp pal are cop-out gags whose sole purpose is to help out with many of the slower scenes. All of the visual wonderment that the Wachowskis employ begins to gloss over as the film just drags on and on, going far past the ideal runtime for something of its ilk.

I’m going to give “Speed Racer” third place by less than a car length with a 3 out of 5. It was better than I expected … but that’s not saying too much. If you’re a big fan of the cartoon, love “F-Zero” or have some kind of Hirsch Crush (treatable with a topical cream by the way), feel free to check this out on the big screen. The mind-numbing amounts of CGI do make a trip to the theater a little more worthwhile than for some run-of-the-mill romantic comedy that translates just as well, or worse, on your TV.

If the trailer didn’t excite you at all, do not take this slightly favorable review as any reason to change your mind. Save up that cash for one of the many big films still to come this summer … or buy yourself a sandwich; you look a little peaked.

Oh, and just for good measure, I’ll write it one more time: Wachowski! Not quite as fun to say as Jan de Bont! … but still a good time.