Converting a fondly remembered cartoon series — one of the first Japanese animes syndicated on American TV — into a prospective franchise, Matrix masters Larry and Andy Wachowski have taken another step toward the total cyborganization of the cinema.
Even more than most summer-season special-effects fests, Speed Racer is a live-action-and-animation hybrid and, what's more, proud of it. Bright, shiny and button-cute, the movie is a self-consciously tawdry trifle in which what you see is what you get. "Production design" is a poor term to describe Owen Paterson's garish look. Gaudier than a Hindu-temple roof, louder than the Las Vegas night, Speed Racer is a cathedral of glitz. The movie projects a Candy Land topography under lava-lamp skies and Hello Kitty clouds — part Middle Earth, part mental breakdown — using a beyond-Bollywood color scheme wherein ultra-turquoise is the new black.
Call it Power Kitsch, Neo-Jetsonism or Icon-D — this film could launch a movement. A dream (or perhaps nightmare) team of pop artists might have collaborated on Speed Racer's mise-en-scène. The futuristic multihued skyscrapers seem a figment of Kenny Scharf's imagination. The glazed female leads might be Jeff Koons sculptures sporting Takashi Murakami accessories. And once the various gizmobiles accelerate to warp speed on roller-coaster racetracks seemingly conceived by Dr. Seuss, the screen reconstitutes itself as a Bridget Riley vortex or a mad geometric abstraction of Kenneth Noland racing stripes.
This carousel, which clocks in at a leisurely 135 minutes, is more fun to describe than to ride. Blithely nonlinear for its first half-hour, the past merging with the present as shifting backgrounds segue to flashbacks, Speed Racer has a narrative at once simple-minded and senseless. Still, it's touchingly faithful to Tatsuo Yoshida's original cartoons. Here, as in the old series, the eponymous hero (Emile Hirsch) — child of the auto-inventor Pops Racer (John Goodman, man-mountain of goodwill) and Mom Racer (an appropriately robotic Susan Sarandon) — is born to drive the family Mach 5, particularly once older brother Rex is seemingly vaporized in a wreck. And drive Speed does — if not as well as the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).
Speed Racer will never be confused with a no-frills dynamo such as Howard Hawks' The Crowd Roars. For all the excited color commentary ("Speed Racer is driving straight up a cliff face!"), the races lack drama. Each spectacle is an enjoyably lurid tinsel-confetti blur, with crackups as convoluted as they are inconsequential.
After the relative failures of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions and the widespread disapproval inspired by their tastelessly anarcho-terrorist V for Vendetta, the brothers have opted for family-friendly fluff. In place of irony, there's a sprinkling of camp sentimentality. Speed is abetted by plucky girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), who, with a Louise Brooks bob set off by a pair of red barrettes, is even more of a porcelain doll than Mom. And the movie clan, like its back-in-the-day precursor, includes a tubby little brother (Paulie Litt) with a bratty pet chimp. Everyone has a role, even if it's only a matter of creative lurking. As Pops and his engineer, Sparky (Kick Gurry), rebuild the Mach 5 for the Grand Prix, Mom makes the peanut-butter sandwiches. She's no Oracle.
Like The Matrix (or Disney's engagingly primitive DOS-era relic Tron), Speed Racer gives the not-unrealistic impression of taking place inside a computer. But love, hate or ignore it, The Matrix proposed a social mythology. Speed Racer is simply a mishmash that, among other things, intermittently parodies the earlier film's pretensions. His path plotted by a mysterious cabal, Speed Racer could be the One. Indeed, in the grand first-installment climax, messianic frenzy merges with market research as the young racer's "upset" victory seeks not only to change the face of high-stakes race-car driving but also to alter the nature of reality itself: "It's a whole new world!" This hopeful self-promotion is especially ridiculous in that Speed Racer — like The Matrix and the plot-heavy V for Vendetta — ostentatiously traffics in left-wing allegory.
The villain (Roger Allam, V for Vendetta's fascist talk-show host) is a slavering tycoon, whereas Speed Racer is, as his mother tells him, an artist. In the movie, racing is a racket. Multinationals sponsor drivers, fix races, and use the sport to drive up the market price of their stock. The Wachowski brothers might once have regarded Hollywood with the same cynicism. Ideologically anti-corporate, their previous productions aspired to be something more than mindless sensation; Speed Racer is thrilled to be less. It's the delusions minus the grandeur.