Speed Racer (2008)

Clocking in at an unacceptable two hours and fifteen minutes in length, Speed Racer tells an incredibly simple story about a boy and his race car and the quest to conquer the evil corporations ruining his favorite sport. You’ve seen this basic story before — probably more in cartoons and television shows (which is where the Speed Racer property began) than in feature films, but it will feel very familiar to most of the people watching it.

The boy’s name is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsh), because if you’re a parent and you happen to have the last name of “Racer,” wouldn’t you take advantage of that? He has liked to do nothing but race cars for as long as he can remember, and at the point he turns 18, he is good enough to be considered one of the best drivers currently racing. This is also set in some weird future where everything is as colorful as it can be, and cars can do things that the cars you know cannot. It’s much like a kart racing video game, now that I think about it. Think Mario Kart but with faster speeds and less silly — although no more believable — weaponry.

Since Speed Racer is such a good racer, early in the film he is recruited by a bunch of different teams, all of them hoping he’ll sign with them to bolster the brand. One offer in particular, made by one Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), is tempting but speed declines them all because of family reasons. Soon, he learns that most racers are fixed, including the Grand Prix, and that the whole sport is driven by businessmen, not the racers. Determined to prove them wrong, speed embarks to win a bunch of races in spite of the prevalent corruption.

By my count, there are two big races and a couple of smaller ones that happen in the film. They contain more colors than you might think imaginable in a “live action” film, although how much is truly live action will need to be looked at. Almost all of the film seemed to be either created in or enhanced by a computer. Only the actors remain intact, although they, too, are often covered up with CGI equipment.

From a technical standpoint, few films touch Speed Racer. This is a film of pure spectacle. It has been put together by two of the most technically sound directors working, the Wachowski siblings, and it has a unique visual style that you won’t have seen before at the cinema. It’s reminiscent of the original show but updated with more modern effects and techniques. It’s initially unsettling, I’ll admit, but after you begin to accept it and the world that has been created, it’s a marvel to watch everything unfold.

You can feel the skill and heart of Speed Racer drip from each frame. I can only imagine how much time and effort it would take to create a movie that looks like this one does, and that’s a testament to how much the filmmakers cared about the project. More cynical movies might have taken an ironic approach or put together a half-hearted effort, but this film has been assembled with great care. You appreciate the artistry of the filmmakers when you watch this movie.

The variety of racing environments is also beneficial. While some of it looks same-y — essentially a more “stadium” Rainbow Road — there are also ice portions, desert portions, and a couple of others I’m sure I’m forgetting. With this brings hazards and a new visual palette to look at. The races, as a result, don’t get dull. Motivations are clear, our sense of time and space is never compromised by sloppy editing or cinematography, and high speeds, sharp turns and dangerous racers mean a sense of danger is always present.

Perhaps the most important question now is: “Can a strong visual style and entertaining race scenes save a terrible plot that has characters as deep as a wading pool and takes contains as much story as a 30-minute television show episode?” My answer: in this case, at least, I think it can. Despite the awful plot, lackluster characters and lack of content, the film is more worried about its racing scenes and visuals. It functions more as a tech demo than as narrative cinema. The plot exists as an excuse for the effects and races.

Sometimes that can work, and I’m of the belief that this is one of those times. Showcasing “the best” effects is less successful, but when “very good” effects are used in a creative way, the spectacle can be worth seeing. And when there’s the amount of care and heart put into the project, its plot is almost inconsequential. That’s especially true, I suppose, when you consider that Speed Racer is essentially a film for children. You have to lower expectations of depth when you remember that.

Is Speed Racer worth seeing? Absolutely. It has such an interesting and unique visual style that will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Its races are incredibly exciting, too, which can be difficult to pull off when a good third, at least, of the film consists of racing scenes. I’ll take an overlong and lackluster plot that is in service to creative visuals made by people who seem to love this material over a cynically produced movie with as much heart as a machine.

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