Directed by The Wachowski Brothers (Andy, Larry)
Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Paulie Litt
Opens May 9, 2008
Screened May 11, 2008
Child’s play is littered with toys, but driven by imagination. Kids are picky about their playthings, to be sure, but they’re also experts at rewriting the “rules” of the game. Any parent who has watched their child play gleefully inside the cardboard box that accompanied their brand new $200 toy set has learned (or remembered) a fundamental axiom of play: You may want a toy because it can do something—light up, transform, pee—but you play with a toy because it can do anything.
That spirit of play pervades every Crayola-bright frame of Speed Racer, the new film by Andy and Larry Wachowski. The Wachowski Brothers, as they’re known, brought the cartoon physics to live-action life in The Matrix films. To this colossal playdate they’ve brought their bestest toys ever. The action, which is almost completely computer-generated, takes place in a hyperactive, Technicolor, alternative near-future, a “Tomorrow A.D.” where auto racing is The World’s Sport and racetracks in every city twist upward in knotted spirals dozens of stories high.
The story is simple, by comic book standards: Speed Racer and the Racer Family race cars, as a family. With me? Pops Racer (John Goodman, gentle and gruff) builds the cars; Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) doles out cookies and hugs; little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt—your child’s new best friend) goofs around with a chimpanzee named Chim-Chim. Speed, played with innocence and intensity by Emile Hirsch, loves two things: racing, and his family. Oh, and a girl named Trixie, played by Christina Ricci, perfectly cast. These overqualified actors do a fine job filling the frame with real emotions—no Dick Tracy, this.
Big Business Men—personified by a Richard Branson-esque mogul called Royalton—run a corrupt underworld that pays cheaters to control the results of big races. Speed is tempted by Royalton’s offers of sponsorship and riches, but he ultimately stays away and fights the good fight for a clean race. In this he’s helped by a masked man called Racer X (Matthew Fox), a brooding avenger who may or may have been involved in the racing death of Speed’s older brother, Rex (Scott Porter).
The racing action is cartoonish, but also relentless and intense. Young kids might be overwhelmed (or overstimulated) by the pace and dazzle of it all. Cars careen, crash, and explode. Their drivers roll to safety every time, encased in brightly-colored balls of bubble wrap that form around them as their cars disintegrate around them—a clever touch that doesn’t totally dampen moments of genuine peril.
Some fights break out. A couple of schoolyard scraps featuring the young Speed and Trixie unfold with no consequences for the fighters. The other battles are standard Wachowski kung-fu fair—the word, I believe is “awesome.” The bad guys don’t fair well—some end up twisted in cartoony knots.
There are a few gross-outs. A gangster uses piranhas to threaten a rival, in the ensuing fracas, one of his thugs gets a finger eaten off. Most of the racers use gadgets and dirty tricks to gain ground— some of these involve animals I found scary as a kid: bees, snakes, dominatrixes. At one point, the monkey throws what monkeys throw, and the little brother flips the bad guy the bird.
And there’s profanity, folks. D-, a-, and s-words—fewer than half a dozen instances each—are uttered by good and bad characters alike. I cannot for the life of me figure out why—the swears seem forced, every time. I can say that the feel of the film remains light-hearted and family-oriented despite the occasional bleeper—maybe the kids will miss them in the fray of light and sound and speed.
Speed and Trixie almost kiss a couple times—the smooch, when it comes, is squeaky clean.
Ultimately, Speed Racer turns out to be a lot of fun, and more than a little work—just like playtime.