If the old Speed Racer cartoon had a baby with a Hot Wheels commercial in the back of a candy store and fed it magic mushrooms every day for breakfast, then when it turned 18 that baby would legally become this movie. What I mean is it’s clearly the product of its upbringing: silly cartoon plot, Skittles color palette, cartoon physics, monkey wearing clothes, etc. But it wants to become a man, so it rebels. It confuses little kids and their parents with a complex non-linear structure intercutting a present day race with backstory and a flashback race and overlapping past and present races within one shot. And instead of trying to stop some evil plot to destroy the world like you’re supposed to do in this type of movie, SPEED RACER helps an investigative body stop a corrupt corporation from manipulating the stock market by fixing races. (It does not mention the tax disputes from PHANTOM MENACE.)
The result is a movie that people want to beat up. The Wachowski Brothers until now have only directed 4 movies, 3 of them THE MATRIX and the other one just to prove to the studio they could direct THE MATRIX, so this is almost like their sophomore slump. It’s an absurdly ridiculous and/or ridiculously absurd, kind of alienating and weird Wachowski version of a kiddie movie that already seems destined to lose the studio a ton of money and either force the Wachowskis to try something smaller or safer or to go away and not direct for ten years. Also I kind of liked it.
The story is pretty much the same as the old cartoon from what I remember. A young guy who actually has the first name Speed and last name Racer is a race car driver, his brother Rex was killed in a previous race and also there’s a mysterious masked race car driver named Racer X who appeared shortly after Rex died and helps Speed in a very brotherly way but who knows maybe it’s a coincidence. I don’t remember thinking of the cartoon being in some future world or alternate history but it was some place where everybody was involved in dangerous car race intrigue and what not, and same here. In fact at one point there’s a historical photo of a model-T type car in a race, so this seems to be a country founded on burnt rubber.
What makes the movie unique and maybe unwatchable for many people is its dedication to being a live action cartoon. They keep all the main elements like the little brother and the monkey Chim Chim who wears pants and a hat, and the cars (which are all video game style CGI) are equipped with springs and tire spikes and extendo saws and what not. And most strikingly the entire outdoor world is a computery collage of different elements which are all in complete focus. That was supposed to make it look like a cartoon but instead makes it look like a commercial for Starburst or some shit. I actually think it would look better if it had the same stylized world but with realistic depth to it. But oh well. It least I’ve never seen a movie like this.
I think it should also be pointed out that the eye-scorching rainbow colors used in the movie “to make it look like a cartoon” actually look nothing at all like the cartoon, which was mostly dull colors at least by the time it got to our TV sets. But oh well, it looks cool.
Even aside from the visuals this is a cartoon world where people can move in fast motion, cars are equipped with sawblades and tire spikes, etc. What I like is that all of this is done in a playful manner but not in a sarcastic or jokey way, and the racing story is treated with dead seriousness. The only element of the movie that seemed postmodern to me was the “comic relief” with little brother Spritle Racer and chimpanzee life partner Chim Chim W. Racer III. Alot of their scenes are just like the stupid shit in the cartoon, like “oh no, Spritle ate a whole bunch of candy!” and it’s funny because it’s so dumb. The kid playing Spritle is really good at it and also the kids in the theater loved it when he flipped a bad guy the bird.
What I believe the Wachowskis added is a sincere anti-corporate message. At the beginning Speed and his family are given a tour of the big corporation’s facilities and all they have to offer Speed if he joins their team. It’s like in HE GOT GAME when the sports agent gives Jesus Shuttlesworth the grand tour, except it’s a cartoon world so they give him a purple suit and show him racers learning to eat noodles in zero gravity conditions as part of their training. I like that before the corporation is revealed as being crooked Speed’s inclination is already to turn down the generous offer because he is loyal to his small family business.
The style of the movie is so hyperkinetic that even my Michael Bay fan buddy Mr. Armageddon had no clue what was going on in the race scenes. Personally I didn’t have that much of a problem, they weren’t Spielberg-clear but much clearer than Bay. At worst maybe a Jason Bourne level where I’m a little flustered sometimes but basically understand what happened. (Usually it involves a car flipping through the air. And John Goodman punches some guys.) My only difficulty was some of the quick inserts, newspaper headlines or when it cuts to John Goodman’s ring to show that he’s a veteran wrestler. I got the gist of what was going on but wasn’t quick enough to read all the words. There’s also alot of wipes where some character’s head slides across the screen as one scene dissolves into another. That threw my buddy off for some reason, but he thought it looked cool.
Now, you people know I’m not a fan of all this phoniness. I would rather see this type of world built on a soundstage than pasted together in a computer program. To me the most visually appealing parts of the movie were things like the classroom in the opening, with its brightly colored desks, or the carefully designed Racer home (instead of a painting of the ocean or something they have a painting of the open road). You know why? Because they appeared to be actual solid objects, right before my eyes, existing in the same plane as live human beings.
I was harder on SIN CITY than most people. Good stories, and I enjoyed the movie, but I wish it had some grit and reality to it instead of some dudes wearing silly Halloween costumes performing a play in front of a flat painted backdrop. I think that approach sort of fits this subject better and anyway I couldn’t help but smile at this movie because of its sincerity. The Wachowskis believe in this goofy world and expect you to accept it into your family no questions asked. They don’t feel the need to wink and nudge and make ironic statements to say “hey guys don’t worry, we’re in on the joke, isn’t this all a real hoot? ha ha ha” like almost all movies do these days. They are willing to have a girl flying a pink helicopter say “Move it Speed! It’s getting ugly out there!” without then making some other wiseass character make a comment to point out that it’s silly.
They also believe in their anti-corporate, pro-family theme, and even with literal 2-dimensional characters I found myself kind of moved by the way their family cares about each other and grows together (although to be fair that might be some residual emotion from old ROSEANNE episodes – Pops Racer is pretty much just Dan Conner in a Super Mario costume). I was also happy for Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) when she got to drive in one scene because otherwise the women would spend the whole movie spotting for the men and making them food. Poor Oscar winner Susan Sarandon mostly just makes pancakes and peanut butter sandwiches.
By all accounts the Wachowskis meant to make a mainstream family movie with broad appeal that would make lots of money for their corporate masters, etc. Turns out people didn’t want to see it so much so now my internet movie nerd colleagues are pointing fingers: it is because people hate the movie, so after they paid the money for it they travelled back in time and did not pay the money for it. It is because the movie is over 2 hours long and audiences demand to only be entertained in short bursts. It is because Emile Hirsch is in it and he’s not a huge superstar like Jason Lee or somebody. It is because of the marketing. It is because of gas prices.
But really, unless you work for Warner Brothers, who gives a shit? ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS made more than twice as much in its opening weekend. In fact, in its opening weekend it made $11 million more than David Fincher’s ZODIAC made in its entire run. That’s how it works, friends. Sometimes great movies are beloved and popular, sometimes they are only beloved. Sometimes trash gets buried, sometimes it gets its own private island in the Bahamas just to use for storage. We as film enthusiasts should probaly start evolving beyond the ancient superstition that these things are important or meaningful. What happened here is the Wachowskis made a strange movie that has not immediately caught the attention of billions of people. Life goes on.
I also read that Emile Hirsch fired his agency and that the movie “could ruin his career.” Now, that’s just stupid. Are you telling me that any agency would’ve told you “no, don’t take a huge pile of money to star in a $150 million dollar movie from the reclusive directors of THE MATRIX”? And I’m having a hard time imagining that he didn’t want to be Speed Racer and they talked him into it. Come on dude. You did a good job. Maybe the helmet looks bad on you. So what. You’ll live. Also could you loan me some money Emile. I’ll pay you back in my opinion.
I like that, even if it was an accident, they took their own weird approach to this thing. I guess it’s selfish but to me I am happy for an interesting movie to exist even if it did not work out as somebody’s business investment. I’m sure it would be more popular if it was about talking chipmunks eating their own shit, but they took the tough road where it’s more interesting to me personally but costs a corporation hundreds of millions of dollars. It could’ve been a tighter and simpler movie and I admit that might’ve been better but I don’t know man. To me it’s endearing that the Wachowskis reach for those things. They make movies that only they would make, for good or bad. I’m into that I guess.
Also I liked when the monkey pulled down the ninja’s pants.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.