Whether or not Speed Racer will work as a movie or not will probably depend on whether depend on whether the viewer is willing to give themselves over to the fantastic world that directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have created. It is a primary-colored, 1960s retro-futuristic alternate reality where the laws of physics bend enough to allow for mindboggling races of cars outfitted with numerous offensive and defensive gadgets that make James Bond’s Goldfinger Aston Martin look as if it should be taking Miss Daisy out for a drive. It is a hyperkinetic, visual riot of a world- half cartoon, half video game, all imagination on overdrive.
Teenaged Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a talented race car driver in a family of talented racers. His father Pops Racer (John Goodman) is an independent car designer who is proud that he doesn’t work for any of the big corporations who sponsor a majority of the professional racing teams. But as Speed continues to gain success as a driver and a drift school professional coach, he struggles with the memory of his brother Rex, a talented driver who left the family after an argument with Pops and who died in a racing accident soon after. Speed also attracts the attention of one of the biggest racing sponsors, E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). Although initially interested in racing under their sponsorship, Speed soon learns that Royalton controls the sport of car racing, predetermining race winners for their own corporate profits. At the risk of his own life, Speed, along with his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), the rest of the Racer family – Mom (Susan Sarandon), younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and pet monkey Chim Chim – Pop’s assistant Sparky (Kick Gurry) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), sets out to expose Royalton and bring honor back to his beloved sport.
Fans of the original Japanese anime series, which first hit the US shores in the mid-1970s, will rest assured that the film acknowledges its cartoon roots in several subtle and not so subtle ways. The plot is a melding of a couple of continuing story elements from the cartoon. (Anyone who ever watched the cartoon will not be surprised by the revelation of who Racer X really is.) Fans may also want to keep an eye out – Or is that an ear out? – for cameos from Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr, the voice actors who played Speed and Trixie, as well as a host of other characters, in the Americanized version of the cartoon.
While some may question why one would set out to do so in the first place, the Wachowski’s have done a remarkable job of translating the cartoons visual look to live action. Across the board, the casting captures the look and mannerisms of the cartoon’s characters. Goodman’s Pops Racer especially looks as if he stepped out of the cartoon directly into real life. The cars careen into each other and perform acts of acrobatic feats that they defy real world physics, but look graceful and natural doing so.
However, the Wachowski’s aren’t merely aping the visual style of the original just to ape it. The multiple announcers sliding across the screen during the film’s opening race not only provide commentary on Speed’s driving in the contest, but help fill in part of the backstory about his older brother Rex Racer from a number of viewpoints. The Wachowski’s then depart from the anime style to show Speed wrestling with his own feelings about possibly eclipsing the brother he still idolizes by having a ghostly red car, Speed’s memory of his brother, racing alongside Speed. Intercut with flashbacks to a young Speed spending time with Rex, the sequence is at once exciting and informative. Much of the foundations for the film’s relationships and personal conflicts are set up here and the Wachowskis manage to impart it all without it ever becoming just clunky exposition.
But just because Speed Racer is a live action version of a cartoon series, do not make the mistake in thinking that it is a children’s movie. It is a family film. Dads will enjoy the racing, and those of a certain age will perhaps have some nostalgic memories of watching the show when they were kids. Moms can enjoy the story’s strong sense of family and the lessons that it imparts. And though there may be one or two spots where the film may slow a bit for the youngest of audiences, there’s enough excitement in the film to keep the attention of most children. The story weaves and turns much like the crazy race courses Speed finds himself on, but it never becomes so serpentine that it looses its audience. It’s a rare film that even attempts to do as much as Speed Racer does, and an even rarer film that succeeds at doing so. Speed Racer is one of those successes.