Eric D. Snider

Speed Racer

Movie Review

Speed Racer

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: C-

Released: May 9, 2008

 

Directed by:

Cast:

When "The Matrix" burst onto the scene in 1999, its creators, brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, were hailed as geniuses whose advancements in special-effects technology would forever change the way movies were made. That has proven to be true, but it has also proven to be the undoing of countless imitators. These pretenders often fall into the trap of thinking that spectacular visuals are all they need to make a great film, forgetting that "The Matrix" had a terrific story, too.

The latest filmmakers to succumb to that style-over-substance mentality are the Wachowskis themselves. With their live-action version of the cheesy 1960s cartoon "Speed Racer," they have created a candy-colored world full of impossibly vivid images and eye-popping visuals. I often found myself agape at the brilliant colors and stunning pictures -- during the first 20 minutes, anyway. Then I grew accustomed to the film's look and started paying attention to its story, dialogue, and characters. That's when the disappointment settled in.

Why do so many filmmakers forget that 134 minutes of exhilaration is not automatically a good thing? Even the world's most thrilling roller coaster would grow tiresome if you rode it nonstop for two hours. Action must be supported by story, and the story must lead organically to the action. All of it has to stem from the characters' motivations. "Speed Racer" is full of people doing things for no discernible reason, and people fighting other people only because, I think, the script labeled one group "good guys" and the other "bad guys." Other elements exist solely because they existed in the cartoon series -- the worst possible excuse.

The title character, played by Emile Hirsch, is a young man of about 17 whose family has racing in its blood. His older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter), was a champion driver until his tragic death eight years ago. Speed's father, Pops (John Goodman), builds the cars while Mom (Susan Sarandon) cheers her boy on. Speed has a chubby little brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), who is his biggest fan, who gets into trouble a lot, and who for some reason has a pet monkey. Speed's girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), for some reason lives with the family (or at least she is always at their house, including late at night and early in the morning).

The plot concerns an effort by an evil corporate auto manufacturer named Royalton (Roger Allam) to insinuate himself into the Racer family's operation by becoming Speed's chief sponsor. The Racers prefer to remain independent, thank you very much, which enrages Royalton. He is tangled up with a nefarious organization that fixes races and ruins the purity of the sport, and somehow a couple of Japanese companies are involved. There is an awful lot of dialogue related to the politics of racing and the high-finance skulduggery taking place behind the scenes, so much that I eventually gave up on keeping track of it. Considering the movie is aimed at kids, and kids are not as clever as I am, I doubt they'll be able to make heads or tails of it either.

The gist is that Speed Racer has to compete in some races in order to ... um ... stop Royalton from ... doing whatever it is that he's doing. Speed is assisted by Racer X (Matthew Fox), a mysterious figure who fights for the side of good. Speed thinks Racer X might be his presumed-dead brother in disguise. Hey, why not?

So we get a lot of whiz-bang racing sequences in which futuristic cars drive at impossible angles, ricocheting off berms and each other and performing a variety of mechanical stunts that would certainly raise eyebrows among NASCAR officials. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein might have a few choice words for the drivers, too, what with their blatant disregard for physics and gravity.

And that is part of the problem. In addition to the outrageously convoluted story, the flat characters, and the passionless dialogue, there's also the fact that there's no tension in any of the action. We never fear for anyone's safety because we know that their cars can drive up walls or execute triple somersaults or whatever else might be needed to ensure the driver's survival. The action is plentiful, but it never feels like it matters.

Were it not for the fact that the film is well over two hours long, I would think that watching it with the sound off might be the most rewarding way to experience it. It certainly is a wonder to look at. Too bad the Wachowskis neglected to concoct a story to go with it. Who would have thought a movie this dazzling could also be so boring?

Grade: C-

Rated PG, a little mild profanity, some violence, an instance of bird-flipping

2 hrs., 14 min.

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This item has 24 comments

  1. Sarah says:

    I still think the greatest interpretation of "Speed Racer" I've seen was the episode of "Dexter's Laboratory" where they parodied the source material. Man, that was funny.

  2. Colin Chapman says:

    This is by far the worst movie I have ever seen. My 11 year old agrees. Aspiring young race car drivers watching this movie will end up wearing football pads and driving Smart cars to practice after watching this pointless dog. The closest this movie came to being spot on was when the monkey throws "do do" on someone. Sitting there watching this horrific masterpiece of crap, I felt this was sadly appropriate. SPOILER: The only funny line in the entire movie is when the kid and chimp are watching a race and John Goodman's character almost catches them just before they switch channels to a show in german with a chimp in it. The dad says "that show is in German!" The kid says "not the chimp part!" Ok, now you know the only part of the movie that is entertaining, so read the above and stay home and save $15! You can also save when it comes out on DVD. These DVDs should pile up in the $4.99 DVD bargain bins at Target like chicken bones under NASCAR bleachers! You probably won't have to wait long either - I figure this monstrosity should be out in DVD in about two weeks. Oh yeah, it is colorful, but then again so is vomit from a dog that ate crayons.

  3. Larry says:

    I must disagree, I enjoyed this film. Thoroughly. True, I had low expectations when I saw the previews. There were indeed elements of character one-dimensionness (not a word), but they only reflect the original source material and the Japanification cartoon movement, which was so expertly adapted from a campy cartoon in a modern, enjoyable way. The comic relief was fun, and not over the top (who doesn't love monkeys?!?). And finally - the action. Wow. It defied gravity, yet was suprisingly intense and outright fun.

    So that's why I disagree. It's the last time I've disagreed since your comments on Bello the Clown, who is a fantastic clown (in an otherwise terrifying genre). But I still love reading your stuff!

  4. Donnie Booooyeee says:

    I don't know what's worse, the tv show (yes, I'm old enough to have suffered through it) or the movie.

  5. Jackk says:

    #2...Colin, great comment. I was laughing when you mentioned about the DVD bargain bins. Absolutely true. If your 11 year old didn't like the film, I know I won't be seeing this Speed Racer. I remember seeing the Speed Racer cartoon as a kid and it was my favorite and was true Japanese Anime. The previews/trailers I seen kinda turned me off because it looked nothing like the cartoon. Those actors looked really miscast. Your comment really influenced my decision not to see it.

    Thanks for saving me some money.

  6. Jay H says:

    I can tell you that I will save on this film. My money. The trailer was the worst advertisement that I have ever seen and I woud'nt put a dime towards it. When they can't promote a movie with even 1 minute of intersting story line, who would pay to see it anyway? My 9 year old watched the trailer and went out of his way to tell me how I could never get him into the movies to see it. NOT INTERESTED! The makers will lose their credibility when the numbers come out and they should be sucker punched by everyone who was fooled into paying for their tickets because they thought that "From the makers of The Matrix" was good enough for them. SHAME, shame, SHAME. You should all be ashamed of yourselves for slinging crap. Peace. Jay

  7. Jacob says:

    Yeah, Larry; don't you know it's "one-dimensionality"?

  8. Joe says:

    One of the most visually stunning works of art I've seen. Sorry you all didn't "get" it.

  9. scott pursel says:

    "visually stunning",read "epileptic seizure inducing".

  10. Brandon says:

    People and Critics, take heed!

    This was a remake of the cartoon series and it turned out FANTASTIC.

    I grew up with the Speed Racer series, and I purchased the DVD set for my 7 year old so he would be familiar with the characters, including the mystery surrounding "Racer X"!

    We had an absolute blast watching the movie, and could completely appreciate how they turned the cartoon in to "semi" real life. The movie did a spectacular job of recreating the cartoon characters on the big screen and the whole audience was on the edge of their seats during the race scenes. At the end of the movie, the kids were running around the theater making race car sounds.

    This was the best cartoon adaptation I seen yet, period!

    Now, people complaining about character development, etc... get a grip people, it is a cartoon/kids movie for entertainment, not a Shakespear play. Complex plots and deep character developement are for adults. I'm sure these critics had the same complaints about "The Fintstones" lack of plot and character development. Trust me, a 7 year old doesn't care, they just want to be entertained.

    I recommend that anyone NOT familiar with Speed Racer look up old episodes on YouTube.com or find the old VHS or DVDs, then one won't be totally in the dark as to the "characters".

    I'll bet most of the critics are completely unfamiliar with the old Speed Racer cartoons, at least that is what I infer from reading their critiques.

  11. Clumpy says:

    People and critics, take heed, for the mouth of Brandon has spoken!

  12. Denise Parnell says:

    I haven't seen the movie, but I heard about it. I bet nobody will see the scene where the trainer "allegedly" beats the chimpanzee who plays Chim Chim (in real life).

    Here is a message I'm sending to Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski: Know that whether it's praise, love, criticism, money, time, power, punishment, space, sorrow, laughter, need, PAIN, or pleasure... the more of it that you GIVE to either people or ANIMALS, the more of it you will RECEIVE.
    It's only a matter of time.

  13. Philistine says:

    You know, it's funny... some people are clearly trying to stick up for the movie, and yet their arguments defending it actually push me even farther into the "I wouldn't watch this movie on a bet" camp. What makes it doubly funny, to me at least, is that their approaches are exactly opposite - "You plebs just aren't cool enough to appreciate great art like Speed Racer!" and "You snobs shouldn't be looking for great art from a kiddie movie like Speed Racer!" Perhaps that's just me, though.

    And yes, I am familiar with the old Speed Racer cartoons. They were fun, in a so-bad-it's-funny way, when I was younger and they were on television FREE... I can't imagine any inducement that would cause me to go to a theater and pay actual money to see more of it.

  14. Cameron says:

    Apparently Denise missed Eric's PETA articles.

  15. Denise says:

    Spoilers*******

    Speed Racer was a visual treat and about put me to sleep during the "heart-to-heart" moments. Why in the world would a PG movie be OVER 2 hours long? What were they thinking? We almost didn't go because of the length alone. When I see that a movie is that long I just think EGO!

    The biggest downfall (next to the length) was the very noticable pattern of lots of action and long boring speeches...action/speeches...action/speeches.

    Since this was an homage to a cartoon lets make it a cartoon and cut out the crap. LaffOlympics didn't need backstory for every character.

    I think the Racer X/Rex storyline would have been strong enough to carry 90 minutes. I enjoyed the brother/brother relationships and the bad guys should have been limited and left as 2-dimensional characters.

    It would have been enough that Royalton was cheating to win lots of money but we had to go into the whole fixed Grand Prix of 1945 (or something like that) and the Japanese stock going up and down (and a Chinese sister...don't you think we can tell?), some English mafia (?) pirana/finger, thing...what?

    I really wanted to see more of Rex, I loved the desert race, Loved Racer X's persona being so much like a 70's cartoon...reminded me of happy days of watching the old Batman series. This movie needed the tongue-and-cheek to be applied to the dialog. It needed to make fun of itself sometimes...jeez!


    I wish I could have two weeks, some raw footage and some editing software...then we'd have a movie! :)

    D.

  16. Jared says:

    It wasn't a great movie, but it wasn't bad. I understood going into it that it would not be a deep character study, and that the story-line would not be complex(seriously, Eric, the story is NOT hard to follow--the explaination for why the Asian company is involved and why Royalton doesn't want Speed to win the last race are right in the film). In the spirit of a simple story, character motivations are clearly defined. Only Litt/the monkey's scenes were over-the-top (which was intentional, and didn't ruin the film).
    Look, the only reason for the story at all is to give the movie an excuse for awsome racing action(!), which the brilliant colors encourage you not to take seriously. For these reasons alone, this movie shouldn't work. I should have hated it. I didn't. For some reason, I enjoyed it--a lot, and I think others will, too.
    I may go see it again.

    P.S. I never watched the cartoon, so I never understood why-the-frick they had the monkey in the first place. I sympathize on that point.

  17. Michael says:

    I am a 41-year-old die hard Speed Racer fan, and I thought the movie was a lot of fun.

    I had two 12-year-old girls, a 7-year-old boy, and a 5-year-old girl with me, and each of them loved it. They all want to go again.

    The moviefulfills the measure of its creation. If you're at all inclined--go. You won't be disappointed.

    By the way, Denise Parnell: There are plenty of decaffeinated brands that taste just as good as the real thing... You should try one sometime.

  18. Stephen says:

    If you did see the cartoon and don't like it, then why the hell did you go to see the movie.... If you see the cartoon you will love the movie....love it.... yes the trailer was very bad....but go and see the movie..... it has nothing to do with the that bad made trailer. The ones that say that it have a bad story, Then you just stay criticizing that it has too much color through all the movie , great history, and if you did not like the cartoon or at least see it, you can't understand why the movie is like it is.

    That movie is a great adaptation of the cartoon... you will rememorate the anime series... a perfect fusion between the human world and the bidimentional japanese world, comedy, dramatism, thriller, and all that good old memories..... truly great.

    Remember if you didn't even see a chapter of the anime,don't care if you like it or not.... then you are incapable of understand why is the way it is... so please go and see a freaking chapter and then think about the movie.

    And yes.... they should put not for epileptic.

  19. Christian says:

    Speed Racer was a great film. Period. I took some kids (10 years old) and they loved it. If you're not stuck on how a movie should look and feel, you will come away from this film a much richer person. Really, there's never been another film like this before , ever. The movie has an episodic structure to it, separated by three races. The ending is unbelievable, epic. Stuff is taken straight out of the cartoons, including the Mammoth Car. I recommend skipping Prince Caspian this week, and check out Speed Racer. I guarantee the kids will love it. Whoever wrote that their 11 year old hated it a few posts up has probably brainwashed their kid into what sucks and what doesn't. Don't believe it. Speed Racer is a tremendous cinematic experience for the whole family.

  20. miles says:

    the absolute WORST movie i ever saw. im sure this movie has given people seizures.

  21. russ says:

    I enjoyed the movie just fine. What you have to keep in mind here is:


    THE CARTOON IS AWFUL. LITERALLY A PILE OF CRAP. FROM THE 60's.


    Now that we've established that, what can they do with it while still being true to the cartoon? Almost nothing, in terms of story. The movie was exactly like the show was, all about having crazy races to solve problems.

    I loved the effects, that's one thing they did manage to do, expand the effects to such a ridiculous level that it almost wasn't live action anymore. That way they could put in amazing crash effects.

    If they had gone with a better plot, more realistic action, etc.... it wouldn't have been Speed Racer. I happen to have a "Speed Racer Movie," which is basically 3 cartoon episodes strung together, and I watched it after this movie. It was pure crap. Utterly awful.

    I was personally amazed at what the brothers were actually able to do for this show without changing the setting, characters, or overall plots.

  22. Russ says:

    Sorry to add, but I have to. In "Speed Racer the Movie" aka 90's cartoon reprint of some 60's cartoon episodes, there are several parts. 2 Stick out to me.....

    1) The entire episode is about "The Car Hater." He has an offensively housewife daughter who likes to race, but a family member of his was killed in an accident so he rides a horse everywhere and forbids her from riding in cars. He then decides to sabotage a car factory so all their cars will crash and people will realize how deadly they are.

    Ignoring the glaring problem with that line of view.... the next day we see tons of people suddenly driving these cars that weren't even sold the day before, crashing all over the place. Apparently his daughter got one too (dunno how she bought it) and is now in danger in the mountains with no brakes. Speed Racer goes to save her in the Mach 5 (which we see earlier going 200 mph and not maxed out). Despite Speed's best efforts to get to their crash, the Car Hater arrives on a HORSE moments after he does.

    Oh, and I forgot about the part where he went to a race track (a la NASCAR) on his horse and got in the way of the oncoming race cars. They all swerved out of the way of him, crashing and such. He whips some paint off Speed Racer's car with a horse whip, then somehow still escapes security.

    2) The Mammoth Car. Someone stole 50 million dollars in gold bars right before a "500 mile" cross country race. The police suspect it was hidden in a car. There are tons of normal race cars in the race, lots of small ones, then there's one car the size of a train, at least 200 feet long, with cars hooked together train style so it can turn. It's painted red, and apparantly the police suspect the other cars of melting this massive amount of gold to hide it, but not the "Mammoth Car" (which is owned by "Cruncher Block," a mafia crime lord suspected of the crime). They walk through this car, but let it race.

    It takes a day, a night, and another day for Speed to figure out that they melted the gold to make the car. He gets captured, rescued by Racer X (I kid you not, the narrator says this 3+ times in a single episode: "This is Racer X. Speed Racer doesn't know, but he's his long lost brother Rex, who ran away from home years ago"

    Somehow, if Cruncher gets the gold on board a ship he can get out of the country and be safe with the gold?

    Oh, and did I mention the Mach 5 (which we saw going at least 200 miles an hour last episode), takes over 24 hours to do this "500 mile" race?

    -------------------

    So yes, THAT'S the TV show. Not much to work with.

  23. Heidi says:

    I wasn't planning on watching this movie, but it was playing at the drive-in after Iron Man and my baby was sleeping so I didn't want to get up yet. The movie made me watch the whole thing. I think it hypnotized me with its twirling colors and racing noises. I remember getting a little dizzy sometimes and even now, only one week after watching it, I'm still not sure what I saw.

    All I can say is that I sure got sucked in!

  24. Alice says:

    Well, I loved the movie just because it was so true to the anime, I felt happy because I remembered when I was younger.

    Speed Racer will always be in my heart, and all of you who are saying that the movie AND the anime where crap, well, nobody forced you to watch them right?

    I wonder why did someone would what to make a movie of such a crappy and old cartoon, oh dear, he must be nuts!

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