MONKEY REVIEW: Speed Racer

May 10, 2008

First of all, if you’re a longtime Speed Racer fan like me, odds are you’re reading this already having seen this movie. Granted this version of the 60’s Japanese animated TV series comes over three decades or so after I really would have appreciated seeing it, but now that it’s here, I have to say, I liked it a lot. It’s best when Speed (Emile Hirsch) is racing the Mach 5, his family’s way-tricked out car, against all variety of wild and exotic adversaries, with names like Snake Oiler and Blackjack Benelli, each with their own way-tricked out cars. He also races against, and then with, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), and is supported on and off the track by his girlfriend/helicopter pilot Trixie (Christina Ricci), his race car engineer Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry). Chim-Chim, the family’s pet chimpanzee, is also part of the gang, though I have to admit, he was so oddly drawn in the original series that I wasn’t sure what he was; my friend Curt thought he was just some “really weird looking kid.” The movie is perfectly cast for the most part, and the Speed Racer universe, as re-interpreted by writers/directors the Wachowski Brothers, is as laws-of-gravity-and-physics defying, bizarre and colorful in its own way as the TV series and the manga books from which it first sprang. The live actors are almost perfectly integrated into the largely computer generated backgrounds, vehicles and action, so much so that the green screen work that looked so obvious and distracting and just plain fake in other movies is nearly undetectable here, as all the elements onscreen are put together seamlessly. The cinematic world of Speed Racer is a riot of color, richly and freshly imagined with a lot of wit and style, while staying fundamentally true to its sources. The races are thrillingly staged, and they electrified the mostly young audience with which I saw the movie. The movie doesn’t fare as well with the scenes between the races, where the “Speed Vs. the Man (aka the corporate sponsors who are corrupting the race world)” plot gets played out. The scenes in particular where Royalton (Roger Allam) tries to tempt Speed into racing for his evil corporation are the biggest yawns: Not many kids are going to understand, much less care about, underhanded corporate dealings, and certainly not in the terms and at the length in which Royalton goes on about them. Speed’s scenes with his parents also tend to fall flat, but fortunately there’s real spark in the scenes with him and Trixie. The other problem with Speed Racer is that at 135 minutes, it’s almost fatally overlong by at least half an hour. When the movie works, it definitely works, though, and so it’s worth a look, especially for Speed Racer fans, and fans of the Wachowski Brothers, who, after the dud that was The Matrix Revolutions, have produced a flawed, but mostly entertaining and possibly groundbreaking piece of cinema.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

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