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Speed Racer (2008)

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 05/09/08 19:00:00

"Gee, the Wachowskis have sure seen a lot of anime."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Having loved ‘Speed Racer’ as a child, it’s sad to report that Larry and Andy Washowski, the brothers who gave us ‘The Matrix Trilogy,’ have retooled that the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon into a gaudy, noisy mess for the big screen.

The siblings have tried to stay true to the roots, capturing the look and tone of the original series. This is actually a problem because the original was best enjoyed in small doses. On the cinema screen, especially in IMAX, all the flaws of the original material are magnified.

All of the frenetic action and bold vivid colors from the cartoon are here. At first, it gives the movie an intriguingly stylish look. But after about 15 minutes, the film’s technical prowess becomes a liability instead of an asset.

Because everything in the racing scenes is so stylized and artificial looking, there’s no real suspense. The cars don’t look as if they’re in much danger as they jump and glide in a manner that ignores the laws of physics.

The actors performed their scenes primarily in front of green screens so that the backgrounds could be generated by computers later. This wouldn’t have been much of an issue if the Wachowskis hadn’t reduced a capable cast into part of the scenery.

With a terrific actor like Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) in the title role, you’d think the Wachowskis would want to give him plenty of room to develop and build the characters, but he and the rest of the performers have been reduced to merely aping their animated counterparts.

It doesn’t help that the Wachowskis are making their first film for children but haven’t learned how to entertain tots without boring the adults who’ve taken them to the theater. To involve the youngsters, there are some crude attempts at wit unless you can count a chimp tossing feces or crotch kicks as humor. The flashback-heavy opening scenes might confuse youngsters and alienate grownups who’ve lost interest.

The threadbare story involves Speed mulling over an offer from an automotive tycoon named Royalton (Roger Allam). You can tell that Royalton and his company are evil because Royalton is the only performer speaking with a British accent.

Speed owes much of his success to his success to his parents’ (John Goodman, Susan Sarandon) custom auto business and their flagship vehicle, the Mach 5. Naturally, Speed stays with his folks, but faces the wrath of Royalton, which prevents him from returning behind the wheel.

Several of the more popular characters from the series are here: Racer X (Matthew Fox), Trixie (Christina Ricci), Spritle (Paulie Litt) and the family pet Chim Chim (played by actual chimps Kenzie and Willy, the only performers who get a chance to give real performances). Still, it’s all for naught because the people are as flat as their cartoon doppelgangers.

The Wachowskis appear to have been drinking Red Bull by the gallon in the editing room. There are all sorts of weird transitions where actors break off into monologues as flashbacks play in the background. To their credit, it’s easy to follow the story. As stated earlier, that’s because there isn’t much to it. It’s as if the Wachowskis knew they were short and figured that bombarding viewers with anime-inspired visuals would make up for narrative deficiencies.

It doesn’t.

I miss the days when the Wachowskis had come off of making the terrific low-budget thriller “Bound” and showed a knack for subtle visuals and clever plot twists. Apparently, all the money they’ve had at their disposal here and in the Matrix films, they’ve forgotten how to tell stories.

The brothers offered a better tribute to Japanese cartoons that inspired them with “The Animatrix.” “Speed Racer,” however, proves that computer toys are pretty dull without involving characters, even if you grew up with them.

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