Speed Racer received a pretty heavy critical drubbing on its theatrical release at the very beginning of the summer. It kept me from seeing it in the theater but I’m a long time fan on the television show, so I wanted to check it out eventually. I was hoping the critical dislike was more a function of expectations set too high or something. I was wrong.
With Speed Racer, writer/director/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski have taken a fairly popular animated television series from my childhood and turned it into a long, sometimes thrilling, more often boring, occasional eye popping mess. The Wachowski Brothers try to create a live action cartoon but forget that even live action cartoons need interesting stories and dialogue, not just a bunch of “gee wiz” visuals.
This is one of those “green screen” movies where nothing but the actors and maybe a few props are real. The Wachowskis have created their world and everything in it. That can work and you have to admire the effort that went into creating a world sort of like ours but with some colorful differences. The controlled environment allows the Wachowskis freedom to do some amazing things with the movie’s racing sequences. The use of colors, computer effects, and visually stunning shots make this a lot of fun to watch at times, especially in high definition. Unfortunately, the racing scenes start to look a little repetitive after awhile and the plot and dialogue in-between these visual gorge-fests are flat out bad.
Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) continues to be the straight arrow driving machine who is trying to make his way in the World Racing League (WRL.) The WRL is corporate owned and Speed’s skills draw the attention of Royalton (Roger Allam) who tries to sign Speed to his corporate team. Speed sticks with Racer Motors, the independent company run by his father, Pops (John Goodman.) This causes the corporate boys to play unfair with Speed’s career and only the help of his family and friends, including Mom (Susan Sarandon, wasted here), his gal pal Trixie (Christina Ricci), and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), allows Speed to somehow arrive at the final big race with a chance to be the champion.
While the old good guys vs. bad guys culminating in the big race might have been a little too obvious, the Wachowskis throw in so much complicated plot on top of that it becomes confusing and tiresome. There is a little corporate fraud and race fixing, Speed and Racer X helping another driver (Rain) win a race, the other driver’s sister helping Speed, the Racer family angst related to the death of Speed’s older brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter) and on and on. Worst of all is the time spent on the uber-annoying Spritle Racer (Paulie Litt) and Chim Chim, the monkey. Litt isn’t a bad actor, he’s just given the usual annoying kid role that makes every adult (or anyone over the age of 7) groan whenever he is on screen., and he’s on screen a lot. Reducing his presence and tightening up the subplots could have significantly cut down the 135 minute movie into something more in keeping with the dumb fun family film at its core.
Kids might be in awe of the cool visuals but will be bored by the corporate villainy and other plot lengtheners. Adults will also enjoy the visuals up to a point and might have more patience with the plot, but the lousy dialogue (it’s really terrible in places) and that annoying kid make it hard to recommend. Speed Racer demonstrates that looking like a real-life cartoon is not enough to put a cartoon adaptation over the top.
My review makes it obvious that I wasn’t enamored with this movie, but if you are going to watch it, make sure you see the Blu-ray. The visuals are the best thing about this movie and they are incredible in high def. It’s almost overwhelming at first; watching the opening race is such a crisp and bold transfer. It’s presented in 2.35 to 1 ratio and the widescreen really pops from edge to edge. Reportedly the movie went right from high def camera to Blu-ray disc without making a film stopover. Whatever the reason, the best thing this movie has going for it is how it looks and it looks pretty freakin’ good.
Also impressive in the Blu-ray release is that they also provide a DVD copy of the movie. Now families can take Speed and his family along in the car or wherever. Also, if someone is planning on buying a Blu-ray player in the future, they won’t have to double dip to enjoy (if they can) the movie now and get the full high def experience at some point in the future. It’s a great idea.
The Blu-ray disc has three featurettes that are, like the film, sorta "eh". There is a 30-minute item called “Speed Racer: Car Fu.” This is the standard behind-the-scenes promo piece but it does give some background on how the visuals were created. There are also a lot of people talking about the Wachowski Brothers, but no appearances by the men themselves, naturally. Producer Joel Silver fills in for them, but the only time this piece is of interest is when a technical artist talks about what they did to make the car races look cooler.
Despite the lack of excitement in “Car Fu,” it’s much better than “Spritle in the Big Leagues.” This is a 15-minute featurette that features a backstage tour led by Paulie Litt. Yes, there is a section where he visits the two chimps that play Chim Chim. It’s set up as one of those stupid fake stories where he’s snuck onto the set (even though he ACTS IN THE FILM!) and runs into people and says “so, what do you do?” There are some pop-up slices of information on the screen as he goes around and those are somewhat interesting.
The final extra on the movie disc is “Speed Racer: Supercharged!” This takes the guise of a documentary about the cars and tracks of the World Racing League. Each of the main cars (including the cars of Racer Motors) are given a nose to tail tour. This isn’t about the building of the prop cars or anything; it’s treated like the cars are the real deal, complete with specs on their fake engines and suspension and the like. At 15-minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome, but if would have very limited repeat value and is probably of interest only to those who buy books about how the Star Trek spaceships are laid out.
A third disc, after the Blu-ray movie with extras and the DVD copy, is a game called “Crucible Challenge.” The total of three featurettes and a game make this a less than spectacular release, but it’s not insanely expensive and watching the visuals on Blu-ray may be enjoyable for some families out there.