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Speed Racer – Candy-Colored Movie is Candy-Coated Bore

By Bob Garver

Of all the cartoons to turn into a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, Speed Racer would seem like an unlikely candidate.  The series from the 60s is practically the mascot for cheap Japanese animation.  The human characters didn’t look human, their expressions and movements did not change at the rate the should have, and the race sequences often included shots of the characters staying perfectly still while dots and lines zipped around behind them in the background. 

              Flash forward forty years.  The Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame) like the idea of the cartoon.  They like the idea of a race car driver who competes in a wide variety of exciting races.  They also like the dynamic of the character’s quirky but supportive team and family.  They even like the idea of a monkey thrown in for comic relief.  So what if the original series looks laughably crude today?  They created The Matrix, they can fix that for their version. 

And to be fair, it does look very impressive.  Almost every piece of scenery is a wonderful, vibrant color.  The kind certain candy companies wish they could have in order to draw people to their sweets.  In fact, there is a yummy-looking assortment of sweets in the film.  But this is a movie where everything looks so delicious you’ll want to eat the furniture. 

The problem with the non-human-looking characters has also been taken care of.  It’s nothing hard, the Wachowskis just cast human actors in their live-action (but special effects-laden) movie.  Speed Racer is Emile Hirsch, he of last year’s critically-acclaimed Into the Wild.  Other well-known actors include Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Speed’s parents, Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie, Roger Allam (the evil news anchor from V for Vendetta) as evil tycoon Royalton, and Lost’s Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X. 

              All are capable actors who give performances better than the poor dialogue deserves.  That is one area where both the cartoon and the movie fall flat on their face.  The dialogue in the cartoon failed because it was too stiff.  The dialogue in the movie fails because it’s too corny.  There are a few points when characters even point this out (“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that sickening schmaltz”).  Sorry Wachowskis, but acknowledging a problem with a laugh doesn’t excuse you from making the same mistake fifty more times. 

             Two live-action transfers don’t work well at all.  Speed’s younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) was clearly voiced by an adult in the cartoons, which made him a funny, immature little man.  Now he’s played by a kid and spouting off cutesy “mature” one-liners.  Maybe these gags were funny in the early 90s with movies like Home Alone, but their usefulness is long gone.  Also, Chim Chim the monkey isn’t as funny in live action.  All I could think about every time he was onscreen was how much training he had to go through to do the things he does.  And also what a messy pet he’d make. 

             Precocious kids and monkeys aside, the biggest problem with making a live-action Speed Racer is surprisingly in the special effects.  They are great-looking special effects, but they are obvious special effects.  You know that you are watching actors sit around and react while an effects team works around them.  The same thing can be said for the action sequences.  Cars don’t move and fly the way they do in Speed Racer, nor do they withstand the incredible amount of damage that they suffer.  A car will do a corkscrew in midair, do a flip on the ground, and all you say is “Well, it’s controlled by the Matrix guys.  I guess it can do that.”  By establishing early on that the rules of physics don’t apply to their cars, the Wachowskis save us from being surprised or exited by anything that happens later. 

           The plot is not important to the appeal of Speed Racer, so I’ll try to be brief in my explanation.  Speed Racer is the hottest prospect in racing.  He lives with his family, who run a mom-and-pop body shop.  Royalton wants his own drivers to win every race, in order to drive up his company’s stock.  Speed Racer won’t cooperate with Royalton trying to fix the races, so Royalton demands that Speed be taken out.  Not only does Speed now have to beat out other drivers who are in the race for themselves, he also has to fight off headhunters hired by Royalton for the sole purpose of eliminating him.  But at least Speed has help from the independent-minded Racer X, who may or may not be Speed’s supposedly dead brother. 

            It’s a flimsy lineup of characters and motives, but the non-racing scenes are not why people go to see Speed Racer.  They go to see the exciting races or the visually-stunning tracks and cars.  But people who do go to see Speed Racer are going to learn that they can only have fun looking at this movie for so long.  After a while, they’re going to want to watch it.  They will want to be drawn in to the story and its characters.  But they will find little of value there.  Yes, the movie is candy for the eyes.  But as Spritle and Chim Chim learn the hard way, you can get sick of candy very quickly.

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