"Iron Man." Have you seen it?
While "Iron Man" isn't a perfect film, it's a perfect example of a huge budget, technocentric film in which the film's technology doesn't get in the way of the story or, for that matter, the film itself.
Technology wins while storyline and character development never leave the pits.
Directed by the Wachowski brothers, most known for the "Matrix" trilogy, "Speed Racer" is based on the 1960's cartoon series created by one of the pioneers of anime, Tatsuo Yoshida.
"Speed Racer" is the first in a series of Hollywood's attempts to mine the wildly popular anime style of animation, most popular in Japan. In coming months, such noted anime titles as "Ghost in the Shell" and "Akira" will find themselves turned into full-scale Hollywood productions. If "Speed Racer" is an example of what to expect, it's looking like a long summer for animation fans.
"Speed Racer" should work.
The film stars Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild") as Speed, the latest in a long line of racing obsessed young men in the Racer family that includes Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt, "Hope & Faith"), Sparky (Kick Gurry, "Daltry Calhoun") and older brother Rex (Scott Porter, "Prom Night"), who is said to have mysteriously died during a grand prix racing accident.
It is important to note that while the world in which the Racer family lives is entirely animated, the characters themselves are live-action. The racing sequences themselves are entirely animated, in a fairly traditional anime style, and the only "live action" racing that occurs is done in archival footage watched by Pops and Speed of races from years past.
To the surprise of nobody, Speed ends up proving himself to be quite a gifted racer. When he spurns an invitation to join the top racing team, an obviously shady bunch of folks, the truth quickly comes out that virtually every aspect of the "World Racing League" is fixed and Speed sets out to clean up racing with the help of his loyal girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), his family and the mysterious Racer X.
While I've long been an outspoken critic of the ludicrous MPAA ratings, in the case of "Speed Racer" I actually found myself wondering how on earth the film actually managed to obtain a "PG" rating. Sitting in a packed house of children from the age of 4-5 and up, one could hear audible gasps from the younger audience members during a couple of the film's more aggressive scenes when non-cooperative race car drivers suffered their consequences at the hands of the racing league's "fixers." While these scenes were brief, they were still disturbing to younger audience members and parents would do well to be aware that they do exist. Even the racing scenes themselves, again done entirely in animation, are extremely aggressive with cars nearly constantly being used as weapons to chop, dice, shred and attack other cars and people.
Those with a strong interest in racing, young boys or young girls, are likely to be enthralled with the Wachowski's imaginative use the anime style to capture a future world of auto racing in which the cars and the racing tracks are a visual potpourri of stunts, demolition and hardcore racing.
Even with the racing scenes, however, the Wachowski's may have actually tried too hard to be faithful to the style of the original. There's an over-abundance of talking heads that weave in and out of the action sequences, and quite a few scenes in which the characters are seen by profile even as the action sequences are going on. Those accustomed to anime are less likely to be distracted by the unique style, however, even with my comfort with anime I found it an unnecessary onslaught of style over substance.
Much has been made of the Wachowski's desire to remain faithful to the style of the 1960's series. While much of the style does remain intact, the Wachowski's fall woefully short in capturing the spirit, fun and innocence of the original series. This is especially noteworthy given the stellar cast assembled. It's difficult to not watch "Speed Racer" and think about what might have been.
As Speed, Emile Hirsch offers a remarkable contrast to his remarkable performance in last year's "Into the Wild." Where his performance in "Into the Wild" was heartfelt and vulnerable, in "Speed Racer" he's more glossy and detached. While the performance, to a certain degree, fits the character it becomes a distraction given the film's unreasonably long 135 minute playing time. Only in his scenes with Ricci, as his girlfriend, does Hirsch really come to life and it these scenes that most vividly reveal what might have been had the Wachowski's given as much attention to story as they did special effects.
It is Ricci who shines most brightly here, perfectly capturing the absolute delightfulness of Trixie. Ricci's Trixie perfectly captures the style and mannerisms of the 1960's original while also evoking her playfulness and spirit. Almost singlehandedly, Ricci keeps "Speed Racer" on track.
The same is largely true for Susan Sarandon, an actress who long ago proved she can do about anything. While he's far too often dressed in costumes that reminded me of his turn as Fred Flintstone, John Goodman did a decent job as the family patriarch who not so secretly carries guilt over the death of his eldest son.
While "Speed Racer" is visually stunning, the visuals are often overwhelming and, at times, even the film's sound mix felt a bit out of balance as several of the film's "bad guys" talk in a mumble that can be difficult to discern over the constant roaring of motors and other techno sounds.
It will be interesting to see what American audiences do with "Speed Racer," a film that the Wachowski's need to succeed to cement their filmmaking reputations and to offer hope of a future beyond "The Matrix." Budgeted at $120 million and coming on the heels of the vastly superior "Iron Man," however, "Speed Racer" seems likely to have to depend on home video to recoup its budget.
With Spielberg helming the upcoming "Ghost in the Shell" and Leonardo DiCaprio producing the "Akira" films, there's hope that "Speed Racer" won't be a death knell for Hollywood's foray into the intriguing world of anime. While "Speed Racer" sputters to the end, the film's visually arresting style offers solid hope that given the right vehicle a full-length anime feature could still get the checkered flag.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic