There's a sweet spot for family movies. Marrying elements that appeal to kids and adults alike, a family movie can offer flashy visuals, sophisticated drama and humor, and juicy acting that allow kids to stretch upward and adults happily to revert to childlike joy. Unfortunately, The Wachowski Brothers overshoot the mark with Speed Racer, an eccentric misfire that panders to the ADHD set and—in the adult arena—idiots and acid-droppers.
It goes without saying that Speed Racer is also catnip for hardcore video-gamers of all ages, whose brains are wired for long-term eye-glazing imagery and minimal narrative. It's two-hours-plus of twisty-track, gap-leaping Hot Wheels come to life, with a plot as mind-numbing as the vintage Japanese-transplant Saturday-morning cartoons from whence the property originates. Because it can't all be overstimulating (and ultra-expensive) action, the film stops on a dime for weird diversions—like a Willy Wonka-esque tour of race-car R&D labs—and dour melodramatic wallowing no doubt required to attract actors like Susan Sarandon and John Goodman to this dramatic wasteland.
Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) plays Speed Racer—and with a name like that, no wonder racing is "the only thing [he] know[s] how to do." A whirlwind prologue establishes the Racer family's angsty past, involving the shameful downfall of Speed's beloved older brother Rex (Scott Porter of Friday Night Lights). The pawn of corrupt business interests, Rex disappeared and is presumed dead, leaving Speed to inherit his brother's primary pole position at the forefront of international racing.
"Let us hope he does not make the same mistakes his brother made," intones a play-by-play announcer. But Speed's racing brilliance makes him and his Mom and Pops racing outfit attractive chum to the sharky Royalton Industries, which plies the family in the hopes of signing Speed to an ominous contract as big as four phone books. When Speed predictably decides against throwing in with Royalton (Roger Allam), he gets an education in corruption: according to the mogul, the fabled Grand Prix has been fixed for its entire history by a cabal of business leaders.
Having chosen unwisely, Speed Racer will be a loser at best and dead at worst. Thank goodness Speed can rely on his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), Mom (Sarandon), Pops (Goodman), brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), grease monkey Sparky (Kick Gurry), and actual monkey Chim Chim (Willy & Kenzie) to support him in his campaign to stand up to big business by winning every race on the planet. Speed also gets assists from Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann); Horuko (Yu Nan), the compromised but sympathetic girlfriend of a racing rival; and mysterious "harbinger of boom" Racer X (Matthew Fox, who most definitely took the wrong paycheck). Go Speed Racer Go!
The visual look of Speed Racer lends itself to a good preview, which is of utmost importance to real-world business interest TimeWarner. The candy-colored look is largely unique, but with so little to support, the visuals swiftly become repetitive. The notion that the Wachowskis are reinventing cinema "again" is a crock: they firmly base their technique on George Lucas' methodology for his latter-day Star Wars trilogy: filming entirely on sparse green-screen sets later digitally painted into existence. To the extent that the film is innovative, it's all about the eye-popping colors and oddball use of the frame's geography, as heads glide and zip across the screen in emulation of joystick games and funny pages.
It's also a picture full of encoded, ambivalent messages from filmmakers whose success has seemingly encroached on their artistic armspan. "I'm feeling more intimidated than impressed," Pops says of the grand Royalton tour—in a remark that resembles the movie. "Some people have way too much money." Royalton later declaims, "All that matters is power, and the unassailable might of money!" Mom affirms the purity of Speed's artful intentions on the track, and Racer X philosophizes, "You don't climb into a T180 to be a driver; you do it because you're driven."
The frenzied leaps, zig-zags, and 360s of the Mach 5 make the racing sequences beyond-Thunderdome crazy, the Lucas-esque idea of staging the Casa Cristo Classic 5000 off-road race in various terrains almost gets a grip on the movie for a few minutes, and Michael Giacchino's hyperactive cartoon music is witty. So why does the thing seem so fatally lacking in fun? With zesty, unbothered dialogue, someone like Quentin Tarantino might have made something watchable of this cheerfully plasticine material, but as it is, it's a joyless exercise that makes a post-adolescent audience feel as drugged or brainwashed as the cast looks.
Coming as it does from a HD master, this effects-heavy movie looks brilliant on Blu-ray: sharply detailed, free of artifacting, and colorful as all get out. According to my display calibrations, Speed Racer's oversaturated color scheme can at times read more harshly on home video than it did in theatres, with hot reds and a bit of bleeding. But excepting that one proviso, this is pretty darn close to "lossless video." Mastered as a BD-25 disc, this special edition doesn't have the necessary space to support a Dolby TrueHD track, which will miff some hoping for an all-around reference-quality disc, but to my humble ears, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track gets 'er done with plenty of potency. The Blu-ray also includes four bonus features.
"Speed Racer: Car Fu" (27:38, in SD) explores the Wachowskis' concept behind the film (incorporating anime, skateboarding, and NASCAR), the design and special effects work which realized the concept (including considerations of how far to bend mechanics and physics), and the actors' shared responsibility for making it all seem real. Contributors include producers Joel Silver and Grant Hill, 2nd unit director James McTeigue, Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Scott Porter, John Benfield, Roger Allam, Paulie Litt, production designer Owen Paterson, conceptual artist Jeff Julian, senior graphic designer Henning Brehm, graphic designer Alejandro Lecuna, supervising model maker Frank Schlegel, storyboard artists Steve Skroce and Tani Kunitake, pre-vis supervisor Kyle Robinson, pre-vis artist Dorian Knapp, digital effects supervisor Jake Morrison, environment plate supervisor Dennis Martin, location manager Marco Giacalone, environment art director Lubo Hristov, 3D integration artist Jesse James Chrisholm, digital production manager Patrick Kearney, art director for Physical Vehicles Stephan Gessler, and visual effects supervisors Dan Glass, Dan Gaeta, and Mohen Leo. Along the way, we also get glimpses of the shoot and various layers of the special effects shots in development. It all amounts to an interesting look at the way Speed Racer breaks the rules in its pursuit of a kind of "jazz animation."
Blu-ray exclusive "Spritle in the Big Leagues" (14:34) is a tongue-in-cheek, kid-friendly behind-the-scenes featurette, with pop-up trivia, a glimpse of the international press conference and, primarily, a tour of the prop department, the chimp yard, the Racer house set, the gimbal, the art/effects department, the gym, and the costume department. Along the way, guide Paulie Litt chats with Silver, Hirsch, Rain, Paterson, Brehm, Lecuna, Gaeta, Knapp, Gessler, supervising art director Hugh Bateup, animal trainer Mike James Casey, digital effects artist Andy Jones, digital set designer Wolfgang Matschan, supervising stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, ninja stuntman Philip Tan, stunt coordinator David Leitch, and head textile artist Matt Reitsma, principal racer leathers guy Patrick Whitaker, helmet supervisor Andreas Brandt, and security man "Heinz." Packed into these fifteen minutes are more information and entertainment than "Car Fu" has in its twenty-eight minutes.
"Speed Racer: Supercharged" (15:43) is a sort of mock newsreel that reports on the racing world of the movie by profiling the various fictional racing companies, cars, and speedways. It'll be catnip for car lovers young and old. It's a creative way to present a closer look at the film's elaborate and deeply developed production design. Disc two of the Blu-ray set includes the DVD-based game Speed Racer Crucible Challenge, which is, unfortunately, lame. I doubt very much that kids will be swindled by this herky-jerky racing game, considering the many preferential racing games on the market. But it is a bonus to the feature, and allows the player to be Speed, Racer X, or Taejo in four levels of play: Mugranna, Zunubian Desert, Mountain Pass Rendezvous, and Maltese Ice Caves.
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