I don't know a lot about Speed Racer aside from what I've gleaned from the theme song over the years -- apparently, the young man's a demon on wheels -- so, in many ways, I'm the best possible audience for Larry and Andy Wachowski's new big-screen interpretation of the character. Originally a Japanese animation program exported and re-dubbed for the American market in the '60s, Speed Racer has now been revived and revitalized for now. And the Wachowskis have created a blast of pure pop family fun; Speed Racer's a bright, bold visual spectacle designed for kids.
And why shouldn't it be? Or, rather, how could it not? This is a property where one of the supporting characters is, after all, a monkey; any fully-grown individual hoping for an adult action film or racing realism is looking in the wrong place. Speed Racer plays like a car-crazed visual wonder -- it looks and feels like what pop artist Roy Lichtenstein would dream if you locked him in a room full of gas fumes, gave him only candy to eat and showed him nothing but Tron, Indianapolis 500 footage, episodes of the '60s Batman TV show and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All at the same time. With the volume very, very high.
Speed Racer revolves around a young race driver named ... Speed Racer. (And, again: Yes, it's for kids.) We first meet Speed (Emile Hirsch) sitting in the ready room before a big race, ratcheting his right heel up and down with nervous energy. The film goes into reverse gear, flashing back to show us Speed's boyhood and his unabashed love for two things: racing and his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter). As Speed races around the track in the present day, we learn how Rex moved on from the Racer family's independent crew ... and died in a crash during a cross-country rally. As Speed, in the present day, laps the track, it becomes clear he may be on the way to breaking the course's record ... which is currently held by Rex.
And so, millions of dollars in special effects are being used to create the simple, blunt metaphor of Speed literally racing his brother's ghost. But in a way, that sets the tone and tenor for the film; bold colors, big emotions, tricky driving, simple motivations. Speed's win attracts the attention of the huge corporate race sponsors, who want him to work for them, but he respectfully declines -- at which point he's told that all of racing is a rigged fix to sell tech and stock and auto parts. It's a sham, and worse, it's a sham he'll be shut out from. Speed vows to carry on even in the face of this crushing knowledge, but he's not alone. Racing overseer Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) wants to make sure the sport is clean, and his enforcer is the masked driver -- a skillful, willful master of the track called "the harbinger of boom" by fans and foes alike -- known only as Racer X (Matthew Fox).
And, of course, Speed's family and friends are there for him, too: his race car designing dad, Pops (John Goodman); his supportive mother, Mom (Susan Sarandon); the comedy-relief duo of his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and pet monkey Chim-Chim and his chase-copter pilot and best girl Trixie (Christina Ricci). Speed vows to race, and win, and with the backing of those who truly believe in fair racing and the support of those who love him, he may pull it off.
And I felt a bit like an idiot just typing the above sentences, but, again: It's for kids. Using digitally-created backdrops for the live-action actors, integrating pixel-forged spectacles with flesh-and-blood performances, depicting racetracks that look like something from a videogame driven by cars loaded with weapons that look as if they were designed by a cartoon coyote, Speed Racer creates a universe of day-glo, neon-edged fun. The acting is, at best, secondary to the spectacle, but the actors know that it is. Hirsch plays speed as a polite, earnest, gentle young man who turns into a lunatic behind the wheel. Fox is all gravel-growl gruffness in the Han Solo role. (Racer X wears leather, crossed holsters and a gun on his hip; Speed wears ... an ascot. But while Racer X is cooler than Speed, Speed has a certain emotional availability that Racer X doesn't. Your older kids will pretend to be X, your younger kids will identify with Speed, and that's as it should be.) Ricci is a retro-plucky sweetheart and sidekick given to exclamations like "Gee!" and "Hubba, hubba," while Goodman and Sarandon lend lightweight moments some emotional ballast by the heft of their presence. But you don't need a lot of character development when all your characters are there to do is step on the gas, metaphorically and literally.
But the film's star, in the end, is the Wachowskis -- they've created a visually stunning entertainment that blurs the line between animation and live-action through high-tech wizardry and sheer velocity. And keeping Speed Racer a family film blunts some of the ironies inherent to the material: This is a multi-million dollar film backed by a huge corporation about how a small group of friends can thwart a major corporation, and it's weird to see so much auto-erotic racing action at a time when gas is over four dollars a gallon -- but you'd have to be some kind of commie weirdo to think about those things when Hirsch zooms around the track while the laws of physics smile and look the other way. And Speed Racer is long, but trust me, it isn't slow. If your kids have trouble with the bladder-bursting length of it (well over two hours), rest assured, there'll still be plenty of stuff going on when you get back. When we first meet Speed, in flashback, we get to see his young boy's dreams of racing, all motion and color and speed and energy; thing is, that's also what we get in the film. Speed Racer may not look too real when it's stopped and you're walking around it taking notes, but when it's moving, it's a bright buzzy blur of excitement and fun your kids will love.