Saturday, September 20, 2008

Speed Racer: I don't know what's wrong with people

Speed Racer
Directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Man, this movie bombed big time, didn't it? What was it that people didn't like about it? Was it the strange melding of live-action and cartooniness? The impenetrable corporate-intrigue conflict that spurred the plot along? The silly kid-and-monkey antics? The sensory assault of the racing scenes? The lack of "realism"? The corny scenes about family togetherness? The general "kiddie" feel of the whole thing? The length? It's probably some combination of all of those, but now that I've finally had a chance to see the thing, I loved it, and probably due to most all of those factors. Sure, the corporate stuff was not exactly gripping, but it provided a good conflict to hang the series of awesome racing scenes on. The family stuff wasn't exceptional, but it grounded the characters and gave them a sense of realism, ensuring that they didn't get lost in all the heady futuristic eye candy. The scenes involving young, chubby Spritle and his chimpanzee pal Chim-Chim were pretty goofy, and I could see how they could rub some the wrong way, but I found them hilarious for the most part; that kid is a damn fine comic actor. As for the length, it's odd to see a kid-targeted movie stretch past two hours, but when it's full of so much to keep the attention, from frenetic action to eye-popping visuals, I'm not one to complain that there's too much of a good thing.

But those are the semi-negatives; everything else is super-positive, from the amazing candy-colored world the Wachowskis and company have dreamed up to the over-the-top racing action. I couldn't get enough of the visuals, and I personally loved the way they didn't strive for supposed realism. We all know this isn't actually happening, and it's all based on a cartoon, so why complain that it looks too cartoony? I'll take this kind of silliness over the military-fetish and wholesale property destruction of something like Transformers any day. In its best (non-racing) moments, Speed Racer achieves a sort of sublime mixture of "real" and "fake". I loved the way a fight scene on top of a snowy mountaintop pass saw falling snowflakes transform into manga-style speed lines in moments of action.

And the racing! It was just incredible, from the wacky styles of cars, to the wild technology (jumping cars! Wrecking balls! Beehive catapults!), to the amazing track designs. The way it all became such a viscerally contact-filled enterprise, with cars flipping and swooping around, smashing into each other, bouncing around and off each other, exploding in colorful balls of smoke, zooming around loops and corkscrews, performing all sorts of spins and twists, and just participating in such amazing vehicular mayhem, it's incredible that the Wachowskis managed to make it all so clear and easy to follow. As ridiculous as everything is, it makes sense, and it's amazingly fun to watch.

Those crazy visuals sure add to the appeal. Not wanting to repeat themselves, every new scene brings something new to the eye. I've often complained about animated movies trying to emulate reality perfectly, and that applies here; it's so much more fun to see imaginary worlds and ideas brought to life, with more oomph than you're ever going to see in the real world. That's something that the Wachowskis do so well; creating visuals that you've never seen before. The way the cars fly around and crash is amazing, and they still throw in new ideas, like a race through an ice tunnel that sees taillights and reflections streak across the field of vision.

I'm probably making it sound too good, but it's probably a reaction to the initial poor reception, since I did really, really like this movie. Check out that video clip above for a nice sample of the craziness that can be beheld, and a cool remix of the original theme song, which runs over the end credits. Now I think I'll go watch the movie again. Go Speed Racer, Go!


  1. I really liked it but watching it again this week for the second time, the first act gets bogged down in some horrible exposition, particularly by the bad guy industrialist. It almost kills the momentum built up by the opening sequence with the dual race, which I thought was a fantastic way to show how Speed and Rex both got to where they are now.

  2. I could see that, and maybe my viewing was colored by the fact that I ended up splitting the viewing up into two pieces, pausing right after the "let's go visit the big company" scenes and picking up a little later. So I didn't actually sit through the whole two-plus hours, and thus it didn't seem draggy. Eh, who knows.

    I do think that opening scene was beautifully constructed though, with tightly-integrated flashbacks explaining all the backstory you need to know, while still keeping things moving with the excitement of the race and the dramatic revelation of what happened to Speed's brother. I also dug the standard scene (or angle) change, in which a character or object would sweep across the extreme foreground. It was a cool motif that they kept going through the whole movie; very visually consistent.

  3. I work at an IMAX where we showed this, and I have to say, even after watching it over and over (especially the end) for over a month, I never got bored of it, even once. I agree about how cartoony and pretty it looks, and how it works so well. And this was, admittedly, my first exposure to Speed Racer, and I thought it was just terrific.

    I also really enjoyed how multi-cultural it was.

  4. Yes, that's correct. Speed Racer is super awesome. I'm glad you liked it man...!

  5. I loved speed racer, it was a fun ride and I specially liked that they didn't try to make it "serious" and just ran with the nonsense of the original series all the way. Maybe that is why it bombed, as many people couldn't understand how that could work.