Dirs: Andy & Larry Wachowski. US. 2008. 130 mins.
Tatsuo Yoshida's beloved 1960s anime TV series finally gets the big-screen treatment, after many false starts, from the Wachowski Brothers who deliver a large-scale assault on the senses which is as exhausting as it is entertaining. Pitched tonally to young kids, but way too long for a family movie, Speed Racer shares many of the problems of the bloated Matrix sequels. The brothers swamp the fragile story and characters with such a deluge of CGI tricks and elaborate action sequences that it proves hard to care about the humans on screen.
Box office prospects for such a visual smorgasbord will initially be huge, thanks to the Wachowski names, the Speed Racer legacy and a sexy cast led by Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci. Families across the world however will swiftly turn their attentions to Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda, leaving Speed Racer in the dust.
The brothers shot the Speed Racer actors against green screens at Studio Babelsberg in Germany, enabling them to construct the backgrounds, sets and race sequences on computer. In homage to Yoshida's pioneering anime, the idea is to create a live-action version of 2-D animation with actors layered artificially against backgrounds and often out of proportion to their surroundings. Add to that a bright, pop-art colour scheme of reds, whites, yellows and blues and the effect is startling, although the images are frequently too busy and bold to take in - and they never let up.
With such devotion lavished on the film's cartoon style, it's no surprise that the human drama comes off as strictly two-dimensional. A prologue sets up the Racer family tragedy - the death of eldest son Rex Racer (Scott Porter) in a road rally after he is disgraced on the World Racing League. His little brother Speed always idolized Rex, and when he comes of age (as Emile Hirsch), he quickly makes a name for himself as a promising young racer, driving the Mach 5, a car designed by his father Pops Racer (Goodman).
Speed's success brings him into contact with the egomaniacal Royalton (Allam), head of Royalton Industries, who tries to lure him to race for him. But Speed's loyalty to his father and his distaste for Royalton's corporate ways provoke Royalton's wrath and a determination to kill the young racer's career.
His reputation besmirched by Royalton's dirty tricks, Speed is persuaded by Inspector Detector (Furmann) to team up with Taejo Togokhan (Korean music superstar Rain) and the mysterious Racer X (Fox) on their team for the Casa Cristo 5000 - the same rally on which Rex Racer came to a sticky end.
The races themselves are alternately thrilling and tedious. CGI has the habit of taking the thrill out of a car race, since audience members are under no illusion that what they are watching is real. That said, the fantastical grand prix races here in which cars go upside down, rise above ground or veer off cliff edges (and survive intact) are often eye-popping.
The most appealing ingredient in the convoluted plot is the Racer family dynamic, with Goodman and Sarandon especially effective as the parents and Hirsch giving it his all as the gutsy Speed, although the puerile antics of the young son Spritle (Litt) fall flat.
Other actors are sadly wasted, especially Ricci who has very little to do as Speed's girlfriend Trixie and it's a shame to see some of Europe's finest - like Moritz Bleibtreu and Melvil Poupaud - in throwaway roles.
A major revelation in the final minutes of the film leaves the story open for a sequel, but it is far from certain that Warner Bros, Village Roadshow and Joel Silver have a franchise on their hands.
Warner Bros Pictures
Village Roadshow Pictures
Warner Bros Pictures/Village Roadshow
Based on the TV series created by Tatsuo Yoshida
Director of photography