Saturday, May 10, 2008

Speed Racer

This is of course the much anticipated live action adaptation of the classic Japanese cartoon. I hesitate to say live action, because much more of it was animated. I really loved the old cartoon, and I think this managed to beautifully capture the style and mood of the original. Unfortunately, rhythm wise, and a plot wise, the execution left a bit to be desired.

The original cartoon is one of the most popular Japanese anime series. It ran in the late 60's, and though I wasn't around to see it, I enjoyed watching reruns decades later. When I found out about the Wachowski making a movie out of the series, I was both excited and skeptical. The first Matrix movie was one of my favorites of all time. The second two, on the other hand, were two of my least favorites. I went into this with more curiosity than any real expectations. Still, I thought if anyone could pull it off, it would be the Wachowskis.

Emile Hirsch plays Speed, the racing wunderkind of the Racer family. This talent did not come out of the blue, however. His father, Pops (John Goodman) is a race car designer, and his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter) was a champion driver until a series of scandals and tragedies. The movie opens already showing Speed wrestling with demons. As he hones his driving skills he gets an offer drive for one of the major auto manufacturers, Royalton motors. Speed must face the choice of leaving his family, or staying with them while Royalton systematically ruins their lives.

There is much much more in this movie than just that familial plot. The movie includes conspiracies fixing the outcomes of races to boost company profits, double crossing deals, and industrial take-overs. Some of this is pretty heavy for a fun and pretty movie about racing. The plot wasn't necessary difficult unto itself. The problem occurred in the execution of it. Between (and some times during) lengthy race scenes, the story was delivered like a machine gun. Plot points were not slowly revealed, but shot at us all at once. With great potential for development, this method kind of annoyed me.

Visually, however, the movie was stunning. I am still reeling at how accurately they were able to capture the spirit of the show. The almost absence of cuts from one scene to another, the fluorescent colors everywhere, and the extremely stylized, painted backgrounds are all reminiscent of the show. Even the cartoony acting including the understanding mother (Susan Sarandon), the mysterious loner (Matthew Fox), the seductive yet playful girlfriend (Christina Ricci), and the goofy inept sidekick (Kick Gurry). Of course the most extreme of all is Speed's younger brother (Paulie Litt) and his monkey. The two of them, and Sparky (Gurry) were probably the characters that most resembled the cartoon origins.

The movie was filled with eye-candy that might be easy to miss. For example, in one scene, Speed's car comes to a screeching halt, and he leaps out, landing on his feet in an homage to the opening credits of the cartoon. One of tracks is even a giant praxinoscope. Some of the scenes with the racers aggressively jockying for position will make you laugh in their absurdity, but they still work okay in the context of the world created in this movie. Everything on screen is there to reflect back to the series.

You should see this just for the visual splendor. The final race has a trippy resemblance to 2001, and the whole movie has this Japanese animated Wizard of Oz quality to it. The world is made even more unsettling when it whips by through the windshield of a race car. The dirty underworld hidden beneath the giant companies provides a darker contrast to the vibrant world. I can't think of enough to say about how the movie looked. I wish, though, that more time had been taken to develop this potentially complex plot, and actually have it progress naturally, instead of having the plot points shoved through a collator.


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