Friday, May 23, 2008

Speed Racer

I'm having a hard time coming up with a review of this movie. The discussion of it I have seen has been nearly universally negative, with the notable exception of At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper. When I tell people that I went to see Speed Racer, the response has generally been fear and concern for my well-being. And yet, I really enjoyed the film and find myself feeling really defensive about it.

First off, there's the plot. You don't have to know anything about the Racer family to get into the movie. Everything is explained in a nice series of interspersed racing moments and flashbacks in the first fifteen minutes. The Racer family builds and races cars, Speed is obsessed with racing as a child and grows up to become one of the world's best race car drivers, and something mysterious happened to his older brother Rex whom Speed nearly worshipped. I have some quibbles with how the fortunes of the world's finances seem to depend on the outcome of races, but I understand the conceit as it is described. I'm willing to let it go as partial hyperbole from a narrator who is too close to the action. And I can also shrug it off as a future world where I don't know the details of the inner workings. I just accept it, recognizing it as the lynchpin that the movie is based upon and then move on.

Eventually Speed's family is threatened by the evil corporations and he fights back in the only way he knows—by racing them. And those race scenes are a whole lot of fun. It's a little jarring to find that Speed usually races I the Mach 6 while the Mach 5 is his personal vehicle, but it makes sense within the story. Most of the time, Speed races on tracks, so the Mach 6 doesn't have any gadgetry other than the jacks—and in this movie, all of the race cars have those jacks. But when Speed sneaks off to race in a road rally, the Mach 5 is modified to contain all the cool gear that we remember from the cartoon. Each device is deployed at least once, except for the remote controlled camera hawk, which actually was my favorite gadget from the show. And their use is ingenious and fun.

As for the actors, I think they do a really strong job giving life to the fairly flat personalities from the animated series. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Matthew Fox just shine as Pops and Mom Racer and Racer X, perfectly carrying off the caricatures and expanding them as far as the plot will allow them to grow. Christina Ricci lights up the screen as Trixie, though she is underused in the story. Paulie Litt embodies the annoying little brother, Spritle, really well, and his chemistry with his monkey Chim-chim, is dead on as well. Roger Allam just chews the scenery as the diabolical Royalton, and it works because this is a movie of excess. The worst performance in the bunch was Emile Hirsch as Speed. His delivery is flat throughout, showing very little emotion about anything, even when he is supposed to be extremely angry or happy. Nicholas Elia, who plays Speed in the flashbacks, shows a lot more range in his acting than we ever see from Hirsch.

As for the rest, it is eye candy. The scenes are filled with vibrant color and motion, making it clear this is about movement. The cinematography is fun, using interesting methods for scene cuts, and moving camera angles. And the race scenes are just over the top, pushing CGI to its current limits and probably expanding the technology such that what we see here will be commonplace in the future. The races are thrilling, even if they defy the laws of physics, but I didn't come to this movie expecting realism. Generally the events in the races are easy to follow, despite the jump cuts, flying camera angles and brilliant flashes of light and color. In fact, I understood those scenes better than I could figure out the fight scenes in Transformers.

And so I don't know why Speed Racer is being panned. It never promised to be a sweeping drama about the life of a young race car driver. It is a fine adaptation of a childhood favorite, almost slavishly following the storylines and themes of the animated show. It never felt to me that it had any pretense of being other than what it was, and it turns out to be a whole lot of fun. I think kids would just fall in love with it, especially with Spritle and Chim-chim, and adults who were fond of the show really don't have any reason to complain. Even adults just looking for escape should enjoy it. I don't feel any compulsion to see it again, but I'm really glad I did see it, on the big screen and with digital sound, before it unfortunately is relegated to half-price movie theaters. I'd recommend it to anyone, but they should try to see it before it gets away.

1 comment:

  1. I loved how they kept the side-to-side panning talking heads of the race reporters! That's just how I remember the cartoon. Every bit of the action in the race was handled by these perfectly timed cut scenes. The whole thing just made me smile and they couldn't have gotten a better Racer X than that guy from Lost. (There's an irony in there somewhere but it's too subtle for me to grasp)