Sunday, May 11, 2008

Movie Review: Speed Racer

Go (away), Speed Racer.

Speed Racer, written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starring Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Elia, and Susan Sarandon. Warner Bros. (2008). 135 minutes. Rated PG. USCCB Rating is A-II--Adults and Adolescents.

D.G.D.: Well, we did it. We sat for two hours and fifteen minutes through Speed Racer. Snuffles here is the anime fan, so I'll let him start us off. Any opening comments, Snuffles?

Snuffles: Egad.

D.G.D.: Okay, then. The story follows Speed, played by Emile Hirsch, fresh from his less superficial role in Into the Wild, the middle son of Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops Racer (John Goodman), who own a mom-and-pop car-building enterprise called Racer Motors. Idolizing his big brother Rex (Scott Porter), who may or may not have died in a car crash after having a falling-out with Pops, Speed has become a talented race car driver, and given his name, he probably had few other employment opportunities. Approached by corporate magnate Royalton (Roger Allam) after winning a big race, Speed learns to his horror that most races are fixed by unscrupulous businessmen. Determined to win a big race without corporate sponsorship or approval, Speed enters a grueling cross-country rally, the Crucible, against his father's wishes. Helping him are the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who may or may not be his long-lost brother, Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann), who is determined to uncover corruption in the racing industry, and his girlfriend Trixie, who is played by Christina Ricci, probably the closest thing to a living, breathing anime female.

Snuffles, anything?

Snuffles: Egad.

D.G.D.: You can do better than that.

Snuffles: I am convinced this movie was designed to give ADD to all the children and migraines to all the grown-ups. It must have been the Wachowskis' goal to deliver seizures like that Pokemon episode. By the time we left the theater, I felt as though I had been beaten over the head repeatedly with a rubber mallet. Every editing and visual trick in anime and out of it is employed every thirty seconds in this overloaded movie, from fast zooms to speed lines to weird wipes to nonlinear layered flashbacks. As for the race sequences, which ought to be the highlight, they look like a video game--specifically, they remind me of clunky Tomb Raider clones from the late 90s where the camera won't stay in a good place so you can tell what's going on. The colors are eye-piercingly bright and the set designs look like something out of Clockwork Orange. Even the end credits are gaudy with flickering lights and about four different remixes of the Speed Racer theme song. Besides that, the simplistic plot is full of extraneous details; in particular, a lengthy, convoluted, and unimportant backstory is delivered in a rapidfire monologue impossible to interpret. This is over two hours of sensory overload. You'll want Dramamine, or better yet, you'll want a different movie.

D.G.D.: You know, I actually enjoyed it. The candy-colored universe is visually appealing, the acting is all-around solid, and the script, if not exactly deep, is poignant enough, certainly enough for Speed Racer. I agree that the story could use some trimming, but it's not really hard to follow. Even that convoluted monologue, difficult as it is, gets across its basic message. I think people are assuming that because it's called Speed Racer, they should be able to turn their brains off and let their eyes glaze over, but that's not the case. Contrary to your claim that it's made for ADD, it demands a little concentration and attentiveness, but I think that concentration pays off. It is possible to follow the plot and it is possible to follow the racing sequences if you're willing to try. What you have in the end is a zany and overlong but involving story with plenty of imaginative visuals.

Snuffles: Imaginative, yes, but overboard. It isn't that they decided to get inventive with the camera or color palette, but that they did it too much. If the Wachowskis could show some restraint and employ their techniques judiciously so that the visuals add substance instead of mere slickness, they could probably do a fine job of interpreting anime to live action, much as they did in the first of their anime-inspired Matrix movies. But if their future films look like Speed Racer, they'll be giving a lot of headaches and little else.

D.G.D.: But even you have to admit that Speed Racer isn't the most involved story to begin with.

Snuffles: No, it isn't, which is exactly why the movie should be shorter and sweeter. To really translate it into modern live-action film, Speed Racer needs some violence, physics-bending gadgets, family time, and a little fancy cinematography, but it doesn't need these spastic, trippy sequences and it doesn't need a complicated script sprinkled with misplaced profanity. Speaking of which, there's a scene where Speed's younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) gives the finger to Royalton, and I felt as if that was from the Wachowskis to us, as in, "You want to understand this movie? Eff you!" They're so busy revelling in their technological virtuosity, the audience can just go--

D.G.D.: Ahem. To change topic a little, I wanted to get your opinion on the matter of casting. Speed Racer was originally a Japanese series, Mach Go Go Go, yet most of the cast in the movie is Caucasian, and it's filmed in English.

Snuffles: Well, I don't really care. Nobody seems to be talking about it, so I guess nobody else cares, either. Speed Racer's name in Japanese was Go Mifune, but they Anglicized all the names in the American release, and most of the American kids who first watched the cartoon in 1967 probably didn't know it was a Japanese import anyway. Of course, I know you, so what you're really asking about is my general opinion on the appearance of many Japanese cartoon characters, who frequently have huge eyes, long legs, and sometimes even blond hair. The theory certainly exists that this is an adoption and exaggeration of Western standards of beauty; in a related matter, surgery to remove the epicanthic fold from the eye to make it look larger has been popular in Japan, and the famed animator Hayao Miyazaki once said, controversially, that "the Japanese hate their own faces." I'm not sure I want to get into that subject myself, as this is likely a more complex matter than either you or I appreciate. It's worth pointing out that in anime and manga, character appearances are often more fluid than in Western cartoons; characters may, for example, sprout catlike features or become super-deformed in order to convey certain moods. This fluidity of appearance is perhaps most evident in the so-called "body horror," in which a character's body may go out of control and become grossly disproportionate, as in the climax of Akira. But putting all of that aside, if the aim is to reproduce the look of the Speed Racer cartoon in a live-action movie, then casting Caucasian actors makes a certain kind of sense: with the costuming and makeup, the actors in Speed Racer look remarkably like their animated counterparts.

D.G.D.: You sound as if you're more open to translating anime to live action than I would have expected.

Snuffles: I'm not closed to it, and it's been done before, but I wonder what the point is in this case. This movie looks so much like a cartoon, I'm unsure why they didn't just make a cartoon instead.

D.G.D.: Ah, but live-action-as-cartoon opens up another realm of visual possibilities, doesn't it? I certainly think it worked in this case, better than it did in, say, Dick Tracy.

Snuffles: That's because you're easily entertained by colored light shows.

D.G.D.: Look who's talking, anime freak.

Snuffles: That's it, time to take you out of the conversation.

D.G.D.: What are you talking about?

Snuffles: I'm talking about attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

D.G.D.: Wha--oh, going into trance...

Snuffles: He'll be gone for a few minutes, so here's my advice. Don't see Speed Racer if you've had a long day, if you're especially tired, or if you're epileptic. That's all I'm saying.

Content Advisory: Some profanity, frequent action violence, brief scatalogical humor

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Speed Racer:

Myth Level: (I still can't figure out what this stupid "rating" is supposed to be)

Quality: Medium-Low (impressive technology produces incoherent, over-the-top visual glut)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (family-friendliness and positive themes clash with crudities in the dialogue)
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