First-Time Watch: Speed Racer (2008)


By Christian DiMartino

I cannot put my finger on Speed Racer.

For many years, I avoided this box office failure because not only was it a box office failure, not only was it a critical failure, but, quite simply, even as a kid it didn’t look like my cup of tea. Yet my eyes have finally experienced Speed Racer, and while it isn’t the disaster it should have been, it isn’t necessarily a movie I enjoyed, nor could I fully recommend it… but there is still something to admire within it. Told you it was a tough nut to crack.

The film is directed by the Wachowski sisters (formerly known as the Wachowski brothers), a duo who, despite their missteps (don’t see: Jupiter Ascending) still have a creative voice interesting enough to invest in (see: The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, Bound). The same could be said about Speed Racer. I imagine that, in the eyes of the Wachowskis, this was due to be the next Avatar, before Avatar. The film is filled with color- colorful visuals, colorful production design, colorful cinematography. In some cases, the film feels as if it’s bludgeoning your eyeballs. In others, it is a visual wonder. In a third case, some of these visual effects haven’t aged as well as one would hope, but at least the Wachowskis had the courage to go for it.

Speed Racer is of course based off of the cartoon, and the Wachowskis do manage to capture the look and spirit of a cartoon (I am not 50, so I have not seen the source material, but am nonetheless aware of its characters). This aspect may irk some, or it may gather admirers. I stand in the middle. The plot is simple stuff, mostly. Speed (Emile Hirsch, who is utterly gorgeous here, but I digress) has long dreamed of following in his late brother’s footsteps and pursuing racecar driving. So racecar drive he does, with the loving support of his parents (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman), his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his brother Spritle and monkey Chim Chim. Again, this is a cartoon.

The film essentially follows his pursuit of becoming the racing champion of the world, and with his vehicle, the Mach 5, it’s pretty easy to see that that shouldn’t be a problem. There is conflict though, involving a corporate villain named Royalton (Roger Allam, clearly having a ball) who wants to invest in Speed… but when Speed turns him down, he’s… well he’s not happy. This storyline isn’t exactly necessary, but then again without it there may not be a villain. I guess.

So, yeah, the movie is exhausting. Considering the somewhat thinness of the plot, the over two-hour runtime does push its limit. That’s not to say I was bored, necessarily- certain car chases do dazzle, with visuals so nutty it makes Mad Max: Fury Road look normal (that film, of course, is obviously better). Yet even when I was entertained, I was exhausted, because the manic energy and the psychedelic visuals. The color palette is gorgeous, even when the visual effects aren’t. Some of them are, but some of them, again, look like something out of a Playstation 2  video game. Which, considering this was 2008, isn’t a bad thing.

I admired the production design of the film too, as well as the performances, all of which are fully committed to this goofiness. There’s fun to be had, but also the flaws are pretty plain to see. That is, if your retinas survive it. It’s easy to see why audiences didn’t flock to see it, and why I didn’t flock to see it. However… it is an experience. A bizarre, colorful, mixed bag of an experience, one better suited to children and stoners. But an experience.


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