Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 21, 2012

Director Report Card: The Wachowskis (2008)

5. Speed Racer

“Speed Racer” is crazy awesome. The Wachowski Brothers have made a live action cartoon. Not a live action movie that adapts a cartoon, like previous failures including "Scooby Doo" or another John Goodman movie, "The Flintstones." Those movies attempted to strike a balance between the real world and the cartoon one, conveying neither convincingly. The Wachowski, instead, throw the idea of balance out the window and decide that this isn’t an adaptation of a cartoon, it is cartoon, that just happens to have real people in it. An attitude like that probably wouldn’t have worked for most movies.

However, the extensive use of green screen effects changes those chances of failure. The entire film has an exaggerated, overly colorful, animated look to it that totally establishes in the audience’s mind that this is something different. While “Sin City” and “300” have tried before, “Speed Racer” is the first time the green screen effects truly displaces the viewer into another world. "Speed Racer" is a candy-colored kaleidoscope of hyperactive kookiness.

The action sequences, which aren’t limited to car races by the way, are the pinnacle of this technology. Car racing has never been engaging to me. Didn't watch NASCAR as a kid and have never been a fan of the "Fast and Furious" movies. The Wachowskis film the car races like the fight scenes in "The Matrix." This is exactly as insane as it sounds. Cars jumping up and flipping around, deflecting projectiles, battling each other. I suppose it's just a question of wither or not you buy the universe created on-screen. If you do, I honestly found some of the action scenes exciting and unpredictable. The story is composed of several long races, obviously, and the directors find a way to fill each with real “Hell yeah!” moments.

I knew I loved this movie when, halfway through the run time, all of the characters break into a massive kung-fu fight. Characters that have absolutely no other reason to do so are suddenly experts in the martial arts. Bodies are tossed around, massive kicks are thrown, everyone is flipping head over feet, and anime speed-lines are employed throughout the whole sequence, the musical score humming along utterly seriously the entire time. It's hysterical, in both meanings of the word. If it was any other filmmaker, I'd said somebody was on crack during the production of this film. But, no, the Wachowski brothers are really just insane. Gloriously insane.

It's that dual quality of being completely over-the-top and yet totally sincere that makes the movie work for me. Like a big budget version of the Adam West Batman movie. This is ridiculous to a high degree and everybody is in on it, not cracking a smile once. The cast is totally in on the game. I'm not sure if John Goodman is even aware of how absurd everything he is. He's such a total professional, he brings the same level of stately understanding to every role he plays. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are definitely aware that they are playing cartoon characters. Susan Sarandon smiles and plays mom, totally sincere in her love for her children and family. Christina Ricci exaggerates her normal level of pixie adorableness to its farthest reaches. Matthew Fox gives the best performance. Stone-faced, moving as awkwardly as the original cartoon character, he even sounds like Racer X did on the show. Emile Hirsch is admittedly a little flat. Of course, Speed has always been the least interesting character in his own show.

Swear to God, I'm not crazy here. I found the familial drama in the film to be genuinely touching at times. Listening to two characters talk about how much car racing means to them, how they bound over it, is ridiculous on paper. Of course, the rest of the movie is ridiculous too. So I guess I just bought. Hey, fathers and sons bond over real life stuff much more goofy then that. The love and togetherness of the family is obviously the main theme of the entire movie. And who doesn't want a family that will stand by you in everything, even when racing through a desert while evil doers fling bee hives at you?

As much as I love a lot of things this movie does, it’s not perfect. Spritle and Chim-Chim, who is at least a real monkey instead of a CGI character, were annoying on the old cartoon and are, big surprise, annoying in the movie. Their little skits are often overly frantic (Which is really saying something in a movie that's frantic throughout) and break up the pacing in an unnecessary way. The characters seem like blatant attempts to appeal to the kitty crowd. The movie is a little long (though it never feels long) and those two could have easily been cut out.

The plot is oddly complicated. I mean, what more do you need in a "Speed Racer" movie besides race scenes? But there's gangsters and attempts by evil businessmen to manipulate the stock market with race scores. I suppose that's no less wacky then anything else in the movie but it feels a little out-of-place in a kid's film. Roger Allam totally sells it though, each line dripping with over-the-top villainy. 

Another big issue is that the movie peaks too early. After 120 minutes of brutal car battles and hilariously over-the-top fight scenes, the climax feels too easy. Speed blasts through the finish lines, decimating all of his enemies. This is probably in keeping with anime conventions, but I feel he should have been challenged right up the finish line instead of the way it actually goes.

There are stumbles but, hot damn, “Speed Racer’ is too out of control for me not to love it. Joel Silver must be a really cool guy if he knew he was basically going to get a cult movie that would barely register with the public at large but still was willing to fork over several million dollars for it. There’s no denying it. I have to agree. Pancakes are love. [Grade: A-]


Sean Catlett said...

Goddamn that's high praise.

If not going darker with the story, and not shooting their wad at the beginning with Speed racing the ghost of his brother, I wish they had found some sort of rhythm with the humor. Ah well, it isn't their strong suit. Most of the film didn't end up working for me, but not in a way that was horribly offensive. If Cloud Atlas is their triumphant return, this is part of the climb to it. Okay with it.

Bonehead XL said...

I'm comfortable being one of a handful of people who loved this movie.