Movie Review: "Speed Racer"--Refocus

5/03/2010 Posted by Admin

Movie Review: Refocus

"Speed Racer"

By our guest blogger, John Shannon

Editor's note: With new movies coming out every Friday, new DVDs every Tuesday, and nearly a hundred years worth of film history to draw from, it’s easy for some titles to get lost in the shuffle. “ReFocus” is a weekly column detailing a film that for one reason or another deserves revisiting. Whether it’s simply providing further context or taking a second look at a misplaced classic, we’re here to continue the conversation and give films their proper view.

This week…

"Speed Racer"

Hands down, this is the weirdest mainstream movie to come out in a long time. A children's film stretched to 2.5 hours, with a cotton candy color pallet and an editing style akin to that of Ang Lee's “Hulk,” “Speed Racer” is the Wachowski Brothers' first directorial effort since they wrapped up the “Matrix” trilogy. After they banked nearly a billion dollars for Warner Brothers with that highly profitable franchise, the reclusive directors chose to develop the classic anime series “Speed Racer” with producer Joel Silver. Silver had been trying to develop the property into a new franchise for the last decade, with failed attempts by directors Alfonso Cuaron and Gus Van Sant, and actors from Johnny Depp to Vince Vaughn cast as the title character. Once the Wachowskis displayed some interest in developing the project, Warner Brothers was happy to give them the reigns and let them work their magic on a series they hoped kids hadn't forgotten.

The result can be seen as one of the most expensive art-house films ever made. The cast includes established character actors such as John Goodman as Pops Racer and Roger Allam as E. P. Royalton, flavors of the month such as Matthew Fox as Racer X and Scott Porter as Rex Racer, and indie actors who normally steer clear of big-budget filmmaking, such as Christina Ricci as Trixie and Emile Hirsch as Speed. This diverse and talented cast would perform in mostly green-screen environments in a shooting style similar to “Sin City” or “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” but with HD cameras that would create a pristine image when placed within the alternate universe the Racer family calls home.

In this universe, racing is the most popular form of entertainment. Hyper-propelled cars race and smash on tracks that wouldn't be out of place in an 8-year-old boy's imagination, and if it wasn't for some specially designed safety features, the death toll would be catastrophic. All the major corporations have their own drivers, and the stock and trade world is largely influenced by who wins what race. Amid all this is the Racer family--Mom and Pops, their sons, Rex, Speed and Sprittle, and their trusty mechanic, Sparky. Pops builds his own cars and Rex races them while his younger brothers look on in awe. But it isn't long before Rex gets tired of driving independently, and he betrays the family by racing for a conglomerate. Speed grows up hearing news reports of his brother racing dirty and cheating, and then one fateful night, Rex's car malfunctions and he is killed.

Speed reaches adulthood and becomes the next Racer to enter the league, and soon he learns that the races aren't as clean and as fair as he thought they were. But as an independent racer, he makes friends with Racer X and an uneasy alliance with Toshi Motors, and together they try to clean up racing once and for all.

It's a story that is both simple yet complicated, with one foot in the realm of family-friendly entertainment and the other in adult intrigue and danger. The film garners a PG rating, despite multiple uses of words that would suggest a PG-13 rating, and a moment where the youngest member of the cast flips the bird. The violence is cartoonish, nothing more eyebrow raising than that of an old Looney Tunes episode, but it is all displayed in a fairly tense manner. Just because we see it as cartoonish doesn't mean the characters do. For them, the stakes are real.

If anything, “Speed Racer” is a kid’s movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously. And yet, the second we do take it seriously, it is undercut by a scene with a chimp causing some havoc, or a ninja getting his pants pulled down. It's as if the Wachowskis decided halfway through shooting that they didn't want to do a kid's movie after all, and the different tones result in a glaringly uneven picture.

But one consistency it does have is the big beating heart behind the film, thumping forth the importance of truth and family. It’s a broad topic, and a bit easy to hammer home--but it's one that one doesn't see much in family entertainment anymore. The last example of this in such a film I can think of is Brad Bird's “The Incredibles.” Here it is much more prevalent, yet it never leaches into a sappy, overdone extreme. The Racer clan is the kind of family every kid with a dream wishes they had--supportive, firm, understanding and willing to band together at just the right moment. When Speed needs a new car for the Big Race at the end of the picture, the whole family chips in and helps. And as cheesy as that sounds writing it down, it doesn't come off that way in the movie. You buy that these people, who have been through so much together, would do such a thing.

A supplementation of this theme that I really appreciated was the idea of the "extended family." Trixie and Sparky are not related by blood to the Racers, but they are seen as just as much a part of the family as Sprittle or Chim Chim. It rings true to the new idea of what a family really is. It isn't the 1950s-style mom, dad, daughter and a son ideal. It has branched out beyond that to include anyone of immediate importance--anyone who you love. It's nice to see a modern film reflect that so well.

When one uses the term “broken home,” the word "broken" implies that the family unit no longer works. The Racer family has certainly gone through hard times with Rex's betrayal and still they function beautifully as a family unit. This theme of working through setbacks, banding together to overcome obstacles, even if literally the whole world is against you, works wonders here.

It also is a wonder to look at. Colors, spirals, camera movements and edits like none you've ever seen, all of these come together to make “Speed Racer” an experience like no other. When I first saw it in the theater, I'll admit that I hated it. I was overwhelmed by it all, and my brain just refused to accept what I was seeing. Now, on the small screen, contained to a television set, the film plays a lot better, especially on Blu-Ray.

Another highlight is the film's score. Michael Giaccino is quickly becoming the film composer for this century. After cutting his teeth on scores for the “Medal of Honor” video game series and “Lost,” he has moved on to do the scores for “Cloverfield,” “Ratatouille,” “The Incredibles,” “Speed Racer” and, to top it all off, he recently won an Oscar for last year’s “Up.” His score here is bubbly and infectious, perfectly blending the classic "Speed Racer" theme into a score that would make John Williams a bit jealous. When the esteemed Mr. Williams passes on (a day I hope I never see), I will take some slight comfort in knowing that Mr. Giaccino is still around.

Of course, the fall out of the film must be addressed, at least briefly. Shot with a budget of $120 million, it grossed a mere $44 million upon its initial release. Reviews were mixed, and it didn't help that the film hit theaters a week after the juggernaut that was “Iron Man.” Additional speculation is that kids did forget "Speed Racer." The cartoon was aired briefly in the late '90s, but it didn't get major ratings. When kids think anime, they tend to think of more recent fare, such as “Dragonball Z” or “Sailor Moon.”

But, as history has shown us time and time again, box office gross does not equal quality. Just look at “Transformers.” As it took me a little time to discover and appreciate “Speed Racer,” I hope you give it a chance as well. It's an odd movie, and I'd have loved to have been in the screening room when the Warner Bros executives saw it for the first time. If anything, it's a hell of an experience, and one that really is worth having.

Next week on ReFocus: “Amadeus”

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  1. @graywolfpack said...

    I agree that this film is worth a look at. I took 2 of my boys to see this at the theatre, one was 23, one was 8. We all 3 totally enjoyed it. I thought it was a great job of putting a cartoon to live action, and maintaining the cartoonish quality. You have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. Realize this isn't a action movie you are going to see. It is a cartoon brought to life. Fun stuff.