True to its origins as a ‘60s Japanese animated kiddie favorite, “Speed Racer” blasts into cultural prominence four decades later as an ultra-cartoony actioner defined by its Day-Glo colors, resistance to any laws of physics, and notions of good and evil that go no further than having the hero drive a white car. Aimed squarely at family audiences, the Wachowski Brothers’ return behind the camera for the first time since “The Matrix” trilogy is a blur of video action painting and very loud sounds notable solely for its technical wizardry. Otherwise, it’s pure cotton candy — entirely non-nutritious but too sweet and pretty for young people to resist. General audiences worldwide look to make this Warner Bros. release a substantial hit in all formats, from Imax to eventual homeview sales, with extra coin assured from moppets who require repeat viewings.
In its thinly developed narrative, dully functional dialogue, paramount devotion to family cohesion and somewhat cheesy, albeit expensive, CGI-against-greenscreen look, “Speed Racer” reminds one of nothing so much as Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” movies. Like them, the new pic is tolerable fun for the easy to please, but completely silly if held up to any scrutiny. It also remains mystifying why producers currently believe it’s a good idea for moppet-aimed movies to run well over two hours.
Which is not to say the target audience won’t be amused, or at least distracted, through most of “Speed Racer.” With the visual aesthetic of Japanese anime shot through with vidgame dynamics, this glossy, outsized bauble with a perky cast will make kids feel right at home. For others, however, it will be a cinematic pile-up.
The Wachowskis’ script includes a procession of mild twists, withheld identities and mysterious motivations, but its throughline unwaveringly stresses the goodness and purity of the independent maverick over the venality of profit-obsessed corporations. Former qualities are embodied by every member of the quaintly named Racer family: rock-solid car designer Pops (John Goodman), steadfast Mom (Susan Sarandon) and racing-mad sons Rex (Scott Porter), Speed (Emile Hirsch) and Spritle (pint-sized Goodman lookalike Paulie Litt).
Time-jumping opening reveals how the handsome, dashing Rex seemingly died in an epic crash years back, an event that haunts Speed, whose skill is now such that he’s courted by unctuous tycoon Royalton (Roger Allam) to join his team of top drivers. When rejected, however, Royalton turns nasty and suggests Speed is just as washed up as his late brother.
The action pulls over for occasional pit stops involving Racer family mix-ups; some literal monkeyshines (Spritle’s constant companion in mischief is a mug-happy chimp); and secondary characters that include an Asian racing team (among them a driver played by Korean pop sensation Rain, who will boost B.O. in that part of the world), a sports corruption investigator, a band of very broadly played thugs who ineptly try to put the brakes on Speed, and a mysterious masked man named Racer X (Matthew Fox) who may or may not be Rex resurrectus.
But for the most part, “Speed Racer” is on the move, which keeps the eyes busy but also presents plausibility problems for anyone impertinent enough to pose them. The racing venues, both man-made and in a cross-country rally, resemble a fearsome combination of roller coaster, slalom course and skateboard facility; they’re contorted with impossible twists and turns, quadruple black-diamond grades, open-air gaps and deliberate obstacles. Some cars are equipped with weapons, such as the illegal spearhook, designed to take out competitors. Vehicles glide through curves, turn on a dime, vault high into the air, ride on their noses and otherwise comport themselves in physically impossible ways.
All this indisputably augments the desired spectacle. But it doesn’t stimulate excitement or suspense, for the simple reason that you don’t know what the rules are or what constitutes genuine jeopardy. Time and again, Speed and other drivers endure what seem like catastrophic crashes and accidents, only to simply keep on trucking without apparent ill effect. Repeatedly, there are no consequences to road peril, just continuous cutting to new situations and unvaried high speeds.
The editing is so fast that this film alone will considerably reduce the average length of a sustained shot in Hollywood features. Stylistically, the Wachowskis have devoted themselves here to lateral moves, ushering big faces on and off the screen as if on a conveyor belt; the effect is attention-getting through sheer uniqueness.
Clearly, no expense was spared in the effects arena; viewers who love to bathe in the latest CGI innovations will be in a corner of heaven here, even if the layering of brilliantly in-focus objects within a single frame at times resembles nothing so much as a kindergartener’s art collage. Cinematographer David Tattersall, who lensed the three most recent “Star Wars” entries, knows how to get the most out of the new Sony F-23 HD camera, and all technical hands had an evident field day. If Michael Giacchino’s playful and busy score ever lets up for a minute during the movie, it’s impossible to notice for all the other sounds booming forth.
Cast is very good for this sort of thing, not that much is asked of the actors other than to look alert and driven. In a far cry from “Into the Wild,” Hirsch is well-scrubbed and appealing as the title character. As his loyal lifelong girlfriend, Christina Ricci looks more fetching than ever, positively radiating from the screen. Goodman and Sarandon are stalwart, little Litt is a firecracker and Allam, rather like a noncampy Tim Curry, makes a delicious love-to-hate villain.