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Speed Racer

Released: 2008

Genre: Kids & Family

Runtime: 2 hr 15 min

MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Starring: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Saradon, Paulie Litt

Big-budget, CGI-driven adaptation of the Japanese cartoon.

Splashed with more colors than it seems possible for the human retina to absorb.

Review by: ShaneBurridge

Added: 8 years ago

After the phenomenal success of their MATRIX films, the Wachowski brothers kept audiences wondering about their next project with much anticipation, and surprised everyone when it turned out to be an adaptation of the 1960s Japanese cartoon SPEED RACER. It seemed a safe enough risk - the Wachowskis had built up a solid fanbase, and as one of Japan's first anime exports SPEED had been playing abroad for forty years - but the movie ran out of gas at the box office when audiences proved far less interested in seeing it than other 2008 blockbusters, which stuck to their genres much more straightforwardly.

With SPEED RACER the Wachowskis blur the definition of "children's film" as much as the original cartoon challenged Western perceptions of "children's television". The cartoon series alarmed me as a kid - it was not only the first time I'd seen cartoon characters sweat (in frantic flying bullets of perspiration), but also *die*. It defied all logic that a cartoon character could be killed since it wasn't alive in the first place, but in this show there was always the frightening possibility that we would see somebody permanently wipe themselves out in a car crash (the movie is a little more generous, cocooning racers in protective gel as soon as their cars disintegrate around them). To maintain the atmosphere of a family film, nobody dies in the movie and there are many child-friendly capers courtesy of youngster Spritle (does anyone else think the kid playing him looks like a junior Al 'Grandpa Munster' Lewis?). As befitting his animated origins, Spritle is strictly two-dimensional, a caricature of a kid rather than a real child, obsessed with candy, TV, and getting into mischief with his pet chimp. To take stock for a moment: The Wachowskis....and a pet chimp? No wonder viewers' heads were spinning as fast as the wheels on SPEED's Mach 5. As a counterbalance, the adult characters seem unaware that they're living in a cartoon and are preoccupied with issues of loyalty, justice, and loss, reflecting the weird level of intensity of the TV series.

SPEED is filled with virtuoso racing visuals that move faster and more furiously than anything else previously handled by conventional CGI, even though, as anything is possible in CGI, it can hardly be bound by convention. Flying in the face of cinema's FX quest to make CGI as realistic as possible, the Wachowskis applied their technological innovations to showcase deliberately fake-looking images which looked like toy cars driving through a video game. SPEED is splashed with more colors than it seems possible for the human retina to absorb. It's a high-octane celebration of all that is cartoony - as a boy, Speed creates simple flick animation with his notebook and pencil; he surrounds himself with a world of crudely drawn cel-animation; his younger cousin Spritle jumps into his favorite superhero anime; and the racers roar past a wall of Muybridge's pioneering animated images of galloping horses (remodelled as zebras to make the effect even more stroboscopic). That the cars travel along tracks right out of a Hot Wheels catalogue tips us off early on that the Wachowskis are not only fleshing out the imaginary universe we inhabited while playing with toys as children, but also creating a whole alternate reality - or, in light of their previous MATRIX milieu, an alternate alternate reality. In SPEED, the same laws of physics are defied as their earlier SF work, although this time cars are performing the acrobatics and not lots of cool guys in black coats and sunglasses. The sequences where racecars dodge, dive, and flip themselves into the air as if picked up by giant hands of children makes for a big-screen ride as wild as the rollercoaster that thrilled 1950s audiences in THIS IS CINERAMA. Fifty years later, and in another century, SPEED RACER might well be subtitled THIS IS CGI.