I hated, hated, hated this television show, because my youngest son loved it, and watched it all the time, and that damn song kept worming its way into my head. “Go Speed Racer! Go Speed Racer! Go Speed Racer, go!”
What can you say about a family that names their son Speed? Racing was all that existed in this world, which reminded me a lot of professional wrestling, with its monomaniacal focus on feuds and championships and shouting matches and outside-the-ring brawls that everyone knows are phony.
This was all before I’d ever heard the words manga or anime, which (with a few exceptions) I translate as “crap animation for idiots and three-year-olds.” Naturally, I never told my son I loathed his show. I just tried to be in another room when he watched it. So, needless to say, I had no plans to see this movie.
However, the critic at Time—bucking just about every other critic in the country—put it on his Top Ten of 2008 list. I was fascinated. So we rented it.
Gosh. It’s … different.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that does something pretty wonderful: It uses the magic of SFX and, specifically these days, CGI, to show me something I haven’t seen before instead of just re-hashing all the old ideas that have been done to death … such as the vastly overrated The Dark Knight. Speed Racer is in that class. In this case it’s mostly in the use of color. Several other movies come to mind: Warren Beatty’s experiment in Dick Tracy, Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez with Sin City. (Or it could just be brilliant production design, as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) These movies do not have to be great movies. In fact, all three examples above have serious flaws. I actually hated Sin City, but I couldn’t deny that it looked great.
So does Speed Racer. It is, in fact, maybe the most visually dazzling movie I’ve ever seen. You remember years ago, when home computers were first getting popular, they sold monitors that would display hundreds, or thousands, or 5 million colors? All 5 million are there on the screen, including some I’d almost swear I’ve never encountered before. Scene after scene after scene simply blew me away. And that’s not all. The design of the thing is staggering, even in this time when we are regularly staggered by the imaginations of cinematic artists. The movie exists in an alternative universe where every city is a gigantic wonderland, so awesomely detailed that I kept wanting to freeze the frame and get a better look. (In this world nothing else apparently exists except racing, too, as in the TV show.) We’ve seen vast cities in movies like the last three Star Wars cash-ins, and incredible detail in movies like WALL-E, but nobody has yet combined the visual imagination with the color spectrum of Speed Racer. For that, I thank the Wachowski Brothers and the production designer, Owen Patterson, and the art directors … all of whom will probably be ignored by the Academy next month in favor of some multi-nominated film like Milk. (Which may be a fine movie—I haven’t seen it yet—but how hard is it to re-create 1970s San Francisco?)
Another thing the movie does right is editing. That’s right, I’m going to praise the editor! All of the transition devices in cinema were basically in place in the early 1900s, many of them invented by D.W. Griffith. (Only the iris shot fell by the wayside, and is now never seen except in retro homage in films like The Sting.) Other than that, film language hasn’t changed much. Speed Racer uses a combination of four techniques—the pan, the wipe, the flashback, and the lap dissolve—many times to compress and intensify the story in a remarkably economical and striking way. You have to see it to realize just how effective it is.
Okay. I said most of these revolutionary movies were not perfect, and this one is a long way from it. Many of the problems were inherent in the material. There are three major ones: The story, the length, and … the racing. Characters are thin, and the story is completely predictable, as you might expect from something generated from source material aimed at my four-year-old son. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it goes on about a race-and-a-half too long. And the racing, though as dazzling as the rest … is ultimately pretty boring. Hyperkinetic motion wears me out after about two minutes. The first race is impressive, though you quickly realize you’re seeing nothing but a souped-up, super-duper-charged video game. (The vast majority of the film was shot against a greenscreen.) All the others are just more of the same. The novelty of seeing CGI vehicles race around a CGI track that came out of a Hot Wheel set soon wears off. It’s a lot more interesting to look at the backgrounds as the racing moves into more exotic locations.
So I do not recommend the film as a story. But I do recommend that any film buff should see it, and on a HDTV capable of handling the detail and color. You will only be bored here and there.