SPEED RACER: And when the odds are against him…
Wow. I can’t believe the hating being laid on Speed Racer.
I saw it this weekend, and loved it. Loved every minute of it. It was creative, imaginative, innovative. It was made with care and love. The characters all had story arcs. The story was laid out one scene at a time and made sense. Sure, the whole movie was a cartoon where normal rules of space and time did not apply — in one cityscape you could see a Dubai-like skyscraper topped by what looked like Mr. Peanut, for chrissake — but what do you expect from a movie where a chimpanzee is accepted as a normal family member? It’s got pancakes, Shaft, Segways, Black vikings, ninjas, girls piloting pink helicopters, cars covered in snake skin, races in ice caves where doom befell once before, and Christopher Hitchens as the villain. That’s a good time to me.
The Wachowskis, who both directed and wrote the kid-friendly film, have created a world with its own thrilling, topsy turvy logic. The visual style is like nothing ever seen before, a mash-up of Tron, Blade Runner and Gran Turismo but taken to a new degree of kinetic flair. Backgrounds explode into plastic and chrome speedlines, cars leap and bounce. Deserts are searing orange clouds, fireworks are purple neon. Cars don’t just race, they race through tunnels, not just tunnels, but tunnels animated with racing zebras. Why? Who cares. The internal dynamics require it. The whole movie is shot in bullet time. Yes, it was exhausting — the intensity is too much for a two-hour plus movie. And yeah, if you have motion sickness or are prone to seizures, it will probably kill you.
When it isn’t racing around the track, the story is mostly told through big, big close-ups of the actors. Most everyone complains that the acting is flat, but I think that’s beside the point. The only way to make a successful CGI movie is to keep the actors in the foreground, and keep them likable. If you don’t like Susan Sarandon when she’s making peanut butter sandwiches for an all-night family chassis-welding party, you have no heart.
SPEED RACER captures the rhythms of manga — the sentimentality and emotional overdrive. The characters are always telling each other how they feel in no uncertain terms. It isn’t subtle, but it supplies all the narrative drive the day-glo racing needs.
But the level of opprobrium being laid on this movie is hard to fathom. Over at Nikki Finke, its paltry $20 mil this weekend is rightly seen as a blow to Warners, but the comments are a Newsarama-level beat down. And I just don’t get it. In a world where CGI explosions and digital farting animals are just casually dismissed as the expected mediocrity, here’s a movie that tries to be different and ups the ante significantly. And gets slammed for it. Sure the story is predictable…but so was IRON MAN’s. Anne Thompson rounds up more of the scorn, but is a bit more sympathetic overall.
I think SPEED RACER will have a long life on DVD, and will in time, like Robert Altman’s Popeye before it, become accepted as something that succeeds on its own terms. In the meantime, I fear the Wachowskis will be left in the Hollywood wilderness. My guess is that they really were trying to make a kid-friendly blockbuster; instead they’ve made something crazy and idiosyncratic that will go down as a big $100 million+ stinker.
Perhaps there is one good side to the perceived failure of SPEED RACER: if more little kids saw it, there would be a high chance of an epidemic of epilepsy. Maybe it’s just my ADD talking, but this movie was like a shot of Adderall…it made me feel peaceful and happy.