Published at: May 7, 2008, 4:28 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
There’s something sort of crazy about trying to make a live-action cartoon in the first place, and over the years, we’ve seen some great filmmakers hit that wall so hard they left marks on it. Robert Altman. Warren Beatty. And to varying degrees, I admire what those guys tried to do with POPEYE and DICK TRACY because they seemed dedicated to the idea of bringing a surreal world to life. I thought the way Beatty and Vittorio Storaro played with color in TRACY was sort of ravishing as well, but that was a film that was easier to respect than it was to like. Part of the problem is that cartoons are often simplistic in terms of dialogue and characterization, and when you suddenly have flesh-and-blood actors trying to pull off the same sort of material, it feels threadbare. Incomplete. Wrong.
Comic book movies are a different subgenre, related but not the same, and some of the same problems crop up as filmmakers try to take this static art form and translates its particular vocabulary to film. It’s one of the reasons I love BLADE and BLADE 2... Wesley Snipes (as well as Norrington and Del Toro) understand that a big part of the iconography of superheroes is the poses they strike, the way those fights look as much as the actual impact of them. The superhero films I enjoy the most are the ones that manage to capture and reproduce the sort of giddy pop joy that the best comic books can generate, that understand the particular pleasures of comics and embrace them rather than trying to reinvent them wholesale.
When the early announcements of SPEED RACER were made, I was ambivalent towards the enterprise. I’m not a big fan of the nerdstalgia that has taken over our film industry, and even though I had fond memories of watching the original cartoon when I was a kid, I also remember how completely wacko the show was, and how part of its charm was the idea that it only barely survived the translation process intact. I like the Wachowskis, and I find myself slightly out-of-step with fandom on the MATRIX series as a whole. I enjoyed the first film, but didn’t revere it as the second-coming of cinema as many seemed to, and I like things about both of the sequels and think they’re closer to the original than many fans are willing to admit.
The first trailer for SPEED RACER was so bizarre and extreme that I’m not surprised there was a massive knee-jerk reaction against it. What surprises me is how adamantly fandom has refused to budge since that point. Then again, this has always been intended as a family film. At first, we even heard the Wachowskis were aiming for a G rating. I thought that was all hype until I saw it, and now I’m prepared to admit, they made exactly what they said they were going to. SPEED RACER is a great piece of pop art, but more than that, it’s a genuine, heartfelt, sincere family film that celebrates exactly what it is that defines a family. And if you’re remotely cynical walking in, you will most likely reject it completely.
That would be a shame.
Let’s talk about the heart of the film first, because I’ve read a few reactions now where people dismiss this as a hollow experience. Bullshit. It’s feather-light, but it’s not hollow. The thing that drives the film’s narrative is the natural dynamic that exists when you are a parent watching your children come of age and start to figure out who they are and what they have to contribute to the world. When you’re a parent, one of the things that you feel most strongly when you think of your children is potential. I look at my sons right now, at the way Toshi is starting to come into focus as a personality, and I can’t help but imagine what he might do with his life. He’s growing up around the film industry, interacting with it in a way I could only have imagined when I was young, and I wonder if he’ll get bit by the bug the way I did, or if he’ll decide that he wants nothing to do with it as a reaction to this sort of total-immersion childhood. Either way, the thing I know I want for him is satisfaction with his life. I don’t care what it is he eventually does as long as it brings him some sense of joy and security. Here, the strongest emotional material in the film comes from Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon) as they watch Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) find his place in the world of racing. What impressed me was the way the film treats the races as an extension of what’s happening with the characters, not as a simple excuse for lots of sound and fury. These races are not interruptions in the narrative... they ARE the narrative. Speed Racer’s only half-alive until he climbs into that car, and once he’s out on the track, that’s when we see who he really is.
A perfect example is the first race in the film. Here... check out these three minutes from near the start of the film before we continue:
So the film starts with the young Speed Racer (Nicholas Elia in a charming and brief role) and a quick bit of backstory explaining what happened to his brother Rex (Scott Porter, always great on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS). It devastated the Racer family, and it set Rex up as this unattainable ideal that Speed is always competing with. That’s fine as exposition, but the Wachowskis push it further in the first race sequence, as Speed finds himself on the track where Rex set a course record. Have you see those images in the trailer where there’s a strange ghostly red car on the track that the Mach 5 slides into? Well, that’s because Speed ends up leaving everyone else behind. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no one on the track with him except for Rex, and the Wachowskis externalize what he’s feeling as he tries to break his brother’s record. Right away, that one prolonged sequence sets up just how far the Wachowskis are willing to push the cartoon vocabulary of their film, and it also sets up just how close-to-the-surface they’re willing to play the emotional material. The film is, above everything else, sincere. It doesn’t try to maintain any sort of ironic distance from the material, and it doesn’t try to reinvent things radically. It’s a very faithful take on the world of the TV series, and there’s an optimism and a joy here that feels very true to the era in which the show was originally made.
Emile Hirsch is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting actors of his general age group, and his work here is tricky stuff. It’s not easy to play a character as innocent and without guile as this without coming across as... well... simple. Hirsch does it, though, and you can see that little boy sitting in class dreaming of race cars in the way he carries himself in every scene. He’s caught somewhere between wide-eyed kid and driven adult, and that combination is what defines Speed Racer. He’s allowed to be that innocent because of the support system he has in Mom and Pops, as well as Trixie (Christina Ricci), his longtime girlfriend, and Sparky (Kick Gurry), mechanic and right-hand-man to Pops. The family unit is rounded out by Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Chim-Chim, who are primarily used as comic relief here just like they were on the show, and I was relieved to see that they’re actually funny. They are not, as I feared, this movie’s Jar-Jar.
In fact, there was something they did with the characters that sort of surprised me because, again, I didn’t see it coming. That opening shows how completely Speed idolized Rex, and over the course of the film, we see that same relationship play itself out again, but with Spritle looking up to Speed. Watching Speed realize that what he’s going through is an inevitable cycle, part of maturing and defining yourself outside of your family, it makes these outsized characters human. Spritle’s definitely played for laughs, but the laughs are because of his over-exuberance and his love of his family, not because of dumb fart jokes or easy slapstick. Over and over and over, it comes back to character.
The rest of the sizeable supporting cast is uniformly good, everyone seemingly in on the joke. Tone is a tricky thing in a film like this, and the Wachowskis did a great job of making sure everyone was on the same page. Roger Allam’s got the lion’s share of the exposition as bad guy Royalton, and he handles it with oily aplomb. The most valuable player in the whole movie, though, turns out to be Matthew Fox, absolutely essential here as Racer X, who may or may not have some shadowy connection to the Racer family. The Wachowskis knowingly tweak audience expecations regarding his character, but it’s Fox’s performance that sells it. He is sensational here, and it appears to be the most fun he’s ever had in a movie. He’s looser than I’ve ever seen him in anything, and that crazy stylized voice he uses really seems to set him free. Still, the best bit of performance in the film comes when he and Speed finally come face to face on an abandoned racetrack late one night. For a film that’s as hooked on adrenaline as this one is, it’s nice to see that the Wachowskis still know the value of a quiet moment of conversation between two people.
Now... that’s not to say this is anything less than a spectacle. You know how sometimes you see a trailer for a film like THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and they show you all this eye candy and it looks like the whole film is full of that? And then you see the film and it’s actually about 10% crazy eye candy and the rest looks like a regular movie? Well, that ain’t SPEED RACER. Every single image in this film is outrageous, hyperreal, and color-saturated, and at first, it’s sort of a shock to the system. But by about 15 minutes in, your eyes get used to it, and suddenly the entire palate becomes sort of beautiful. This isn’t a case of someone trying to ape the look of a cartoon, either. The Wachowskis understand that cartoons speak a different language than live-action films, and thanks to the way they play with technology in this film, they’ve finally shattered the laws of physics convincingly enough that this film speaks that cartoon language fluently. This isn’t “trying” to be a cartoon; it is. And anyone who criticizes it because it’s not “real” enough misses the point completely. Physics work differently here than they do in our world. The history of this world looks like it has some things in common with ours, but it also diverges in important ways. Somewhere along the way, internal combustion gave way to some technology that’s better, and as a result, transportation is not the issue in the SPEED RACER world that it is in ours. Cars like the Mach 5 are a luxury, and racing is obviously an international obsession that cuts across all cultural lines. And the races? I’m baffled by anyone who calls them confusing. I’ve seen the film twice now, and I’m going back for an IMAX screening tomorrow, and I think these are some of the cleanest action sequences in terms of geography and choreography I’ve seen in a while.
I’m really picky about action scenes. One of the reasons I hate a lot of the modern blockbuster action filmmakers is because they think quick cutting and shaky cam is an acceptable substitute for actually communicating what is happening in an action sequence. If there’s anything I hope for when I see INDY 4 in a few weeks, it’s that Spielberg’s trademark sense of how to stage an action scene is intact and on display. He makes it clear what’s happening so that every single beat of the sequence adds something or means something or ups the stakes in some way. SPEED RACER manages to create a whole new type of car race here, and once you buy into the notion of “car-fu,” as it were, you’ll have a blast. These cars don’t just bump and nudge each other on the track... they are equipped with hydraulics that allow them to spring over one another, do barrel rolls sideways, flip upside down in tight spots, and much, much more. Basically, these cars replace Neo and Trinity and Agent Smith, but the Wachowskis are still staging these martial-arts balletic sequences, and that’s something I can’t recall ever seeing in any film before.
Special note must be made of the work by composer Michael Giacchino, who once again proves himself to be one of the most savvy guys working in feature films today. The way he weaves hints of the original SPEED RACER theme into his exhilarating score is nothing short of magic, and he gives this film its heartbeat. The visual style may be outrageous, but that wouldn’t matter unless it was accompanied by the right sonic support. Giacchino knows how to lay it on thick without overwhelming, and he also knows when to use a feather touch. I honestly think there are very few guys right now with a better sense of melody and orchestration than him, and any director lucky enough to have him score a film has got to feel like an artistic lottery winner.
In the end, I am more than a little blown away by the sheer ambition on display here. You may see films you enjoy more this summer, and you may decide that this film’s style and storytelling isn’t for you, but you can’t say that this is anything less than heartfelt and experimental and singular in the way it goes about its business. I commend Warner Bros. and Joel Silver for backing such an extreme vision, and I salute the Wachowskis for pulling it off. SPEED RACER isn’t a children’s film... it’s a family film, ideal for anyone who has an open mind. My son loved it as much as my mother-in-law did, and that’s a pretty rare thing. It’s suitable for anyone as far as content goes... there are a few flurries of violence, but it’s all pretty mild-mannered, and the “bad language” is cute more than anything... but it doesn’t feel like it’s pandering. Even when you’ve got scenes like Spritle and Chim-Chim sharing a trenchcoat a la LITTLE RASCALS while they walk around a factory, the film never feels like it’s talking down to you. I’m sure plenty of critics will fall all over themselves to prove how cool they are by attacking the CGI or by lambasting the film for being so cartoony, but more than anything, I pity them. It must be rough knowing that your inner child is dead and buried.
Personally, I find it liberating to see a film that not only encourages you to indulge that inner child but that practically dares you to restrain yourself, and I hope SPEED RACER keeps making laps around the track all summer long.
I’ll have interviews with both Joel Silver and Emile Hirsch for you a little later in the week. Until then, there’s plenty more to catch up on, and at least one more viewing of this one to enjoy.