Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer
Christina Ricci as Trixie
Matthew Fox as Racer X
John Goodman as Pops Racer
Paulie Litt as Spritle
Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer
Kick Gurry as Sparky
Benno Fürmann as Inspector Detector
Roger Allam as Royalton
Rain as Taejo Togokhan
Yu Nan as Horuko
John Benfield as Cruncher Block
Christian Oliver as Snake Oiler
Scott Porter as Rex Racer
Richard Roundtree as Ben Burns
Ralph Herforth as Cannonball Taylor
Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr. Musha
Willy and Kenzie as Chim Chim
Our first real look at Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is when he's a young boy (Nicholas Elia) who is, like a lot of young boys, completely unable to sit still. His toes, his fingers, part of him always moving, always fidgeting. As goes Speed Racer, the character, so goes "Speed Racer," the film.
And at nearly two and a half hours, that's a lot of fidgeting. Throw in a kaleidoscopic color scheme that would give Jackson Pollack a morning glory and you're looking at an epileptic fit waiting to happen. Or in other words, a perfectly conceived kids' film.
The execution, on the other hand, is a bumpier road, having more in common with the labyrinthine roller coaster like racetracks of the film than a nice straightaway. Long time anime fans, writer/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski ("The Matrix" trilogy) have tried several times to translate what they love about the anime style to live action, and "Speed Racer" is the closest anyone has come to making a live action anime. That aesthetic is probably the biggest draw for the under-12 set, and the biggest hurdle for anyone older. Shot entirely against green screen, the living breathing actors have been dropped into a living breathing cartoon. To their credit (or not, depending on your point of view) the directors embrace the concept from word go and never back down, creating an almost fairy tale-like ambience, which is probably the only way to go in film with names like Inspector Detector and Racer Racing. The visual style is so much a part of the film that after a little while it's easy to get lost in it and just go with the flow. But if it is too much for you, don't even bother with "Speed Racer." The look is so pervasive you'll never, never be able to pay attention to anything else going on in the rest of the film.
And the rest of it isn't half bad. The Wachowski Brothers have fairly seamlessly adapted the original anime itself both in feel and style, from Trixie's (Christina Ricci) helicopter to Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Chim Chim's trunk hiding antics, bringing the good and the bad along for the ride. It tends towards vacuousness and lack of conflict, when there's no actual race going on. The show itself revolved around Speed winning or not winning his races, and not much else, and that's not a lot to build on for a feature length film. The filmmakers have tried to add more depth to the character relationships and plot, but the result is a running time that's about thirty minutes too long, and a strange mismatch in tone. There is no doubt that "Speed Racer" is aimed squarely at children and no one else, so it's curious that the villain's sinister plot revolves around, wait for it, insider trading. One of the few times "Speed Racer" does come to a screeching halt is when the evil industrialist Royalton (Roger Allam) explains his market manipulation scheme as if he were appearing on CNBC. Stultifyingly dull doesn't do it justice and I can't help but wonder what the filmmakers were thinking. Once you've introduced the car with a beehive catapult and the soap bubble ejector seat, is verisimilitude of any sort really what you're after?
That said, the effort pays off better dividends with the characters. It would be generous to suggest that the original versions of the characters were flat, barring a little family melodrama revolving around the family's relationship with missing older brother Rex. "Speed Racer" the film does its best to give everyone from Speed's pop Pops (John Goodman) to his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) to his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) a solid relationship and something to do with it, despite being broad and exaggerated in the fashion of most kids' films. The Wachowskis are more successful than they have any right to be at wringing genuine emotion and even a few laughs out of really two dimensional characters. In fact, the character with the least to do is actually Speed himself. He's the kind of impossibly talented but immature young hero that populates most heroic journey stories. He has a gift for driving that transcends rational thought or experience. A gift, as in most hero's journey stories, he must learn to embrace by turning off his thinking mind and going with his feelings. The pull of that kind of thinking is all too obvious, despite how little it reflects any sort of life experience. Within the real world, intuition is as close as we can come to actual magic. That's probably why we keep getting that story over and over and over again.
The supporting players don't fare quite as well. Even the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) comes off as more flat than mysterious. Still, it must be said, the cartoonishness of the characters really does fit in with the look and feel of the film, barring some off-color jokes and cursing that does come off as monumentally out of place, particularly considering the film's intended audience. I'm not sure if it's supposed to appeal to an older, teenage film goer – a kind of something for everyone mentality – but that sort of thing only works when it goes over the kids' heads. Nothing about "Speed Racer" is aimed over anyone's head. It's all pretty much in your face, all the time.
Which will make it hard for any adult to ever digest. The races go on for quite a long time; anyone bored by the Podrace from "Star Wars" is going to have a terrible time with "Speed Racer." It's no surprise that "Speed Racer" was obviously designed with the races in mind, and everything else is made to fit around them. The races themselves bring new meaning to the word hyperkinetic. They're more like controlled spinning than races as they fly through impossible maneuvers along tracks that would not look out of place in a Sonic the Hedgehog game. It's hard to feel any sort of real jeopardy during them, the action is just too silly (intentionally silly, but silly all the same) but that seems to be less of a concern than who is going to win. Which make sense if you're dealing with a real race, but as part of a movie named after the main character, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And when there aren't any races there's martial arts, machine guns, ninjas and British mobsters. Adrenaline is the name of the game, and try not to think about it too much. You probably won't be able to anyway because of all the flashing neon.
The filmic side effect of eating an entire bowl full of sugar, "Speed Racer" is designed entirely with one audience in mind, and despite a few futile efforts it's not going to appeal to anyone else. Which is too bad. As kids' films go it's a good bit better than average, often achieving the delicate balance of being silly without being stupid. It also introduces a whole new range of visual tricks and innovations, none of which will ever be imitated as much as bullet time, and thank god for that. The only real problem is that it has been tagged, the way most family films are, as made for all ages and it most certainly is not. It has been made for one, very young age group, and no one else is going to get anything out of it. But for what it is, it's quite good, and compared to what normally gets made only for children (I'm looking at you, SpongeBob SquarePants), it's positively brilliant.