Why more people (but not all people) should love ‘Speed Racer’

The kids and I re-watched Speed Racer the other day, reigniting the enthusiasm we’ve had for it since last year. Now even Youngest Daughter is transfixed. “I wish we could watch it every day,” she says.

You may think I’m a horrible father. Critics skewered 2008’s Speed Racer for all the reasons you’d expect — it is, after all, a live-action movie based on a 1960s Japanese cartoon. About the only thing worse is a live-action movie based on a video game.

With expectations so low, an average movie goer can either say “Eh, it’s just fluff” and sit back to watch it uncritically, or shout “My childhood has been raped!” (An actual comment I’ve seen on more than one movie message board about this and other nostalgia cash-ins.)

Mmm. Skittles.

And I won’t be the one to tell you you’re wrong. Not really. Speed Racer is cartoony and loud, full of juiced-up computer effects seemingly drained straight from a Skittles rainbow. The acting is broad, the plot is needlessly messy, and the whole exercise is primarily an excuse to show cars defying physics. (Note: If physics is your thing, you might consider a citizen’s arrest of the entire visual effects team.)

Not, strictly speaking, possible

But I love it all the more. That’s because the directors — the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame — refused to take the lazy way out of what could have been a standard cash-in opportunity: “Loud, colorful, zany cartoon movie. Check, check and check. Speaking of checks, pay us now, please.”

Instead, they looked the tropes in the eye and said, “Hey, let’s embrace all this crazy, sugared-up cartoon nonsense. Let’s give the world the most aggressively crazy, sugared-up cartoon nonsense we can muster. Let’s have fun!” Do you recall Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, how, with its spot-colored palette and theme park set designs, it deliberately re-created a comic strip come to life? Speed Racer took that to the next level — it’s not a “cartoony movie” by accident or laziness, it’s a “cartoony movie” by joyous choice. It’s head-over-heels in love with the source material. With the possibilities of film-making. With experimentation.

It’s a mad scientist bringing dead tissue to life. Speed Racer is Frankenstein’s monster, and it should have rampaged through the village longer before the villagers ran it out with pitchforks and torches.

So fast, he warps reality. Truly it is as the prophets say: He's a demon on wheels.

So fast, he warps reality in his wake.

I originally saw this in an Imax theater with four young boys. Talk about stimulation — on the way home, the car was practically shimmying inside a halo of boyish energy. My sons and their friends were a supernova of post-movie glee, and the Honda Odyssey was its poor, doomed galaxy.

Praising a movie for its ability to excite an audience pre-disposed to irrational exuberance is faint praise indeed. After all, my own boys have gone ape over a number of loud, dim-witted movies that make me roll my eyes.

But Speed Racer is different. Speed Racer took this chance to do something inventive and unusual with every visual, every transition, every detail in the foreground and background (simultaneously). You could call it “headache-inducing” as did Rotten Tomatoes (which gives it a consensus 36% on its Tomatometer … that means no good), or you could marvel at how so much chaos could be achieved so carefully. One critic at RT felt “the Wachowski brothers projectile-vomit their cotton-candy dreams all over the big screen,” but I look at it another way: These guys grabbed their source material by the ball bearings. Cartoons imply a certain amount of cotton candy and projectile vomit, and the Wachowskis used that to their advantage.

I loved the original cartoon — I rode my tricycle up and down Carini Lane singing the classic theme song until the other kids made fun of me. This fanboyish nostalgia certainly helps me enjoy this flick. But even movie-lovers who avoided Japanimation back in the ’70s can, I insist, still enjoy Speed Racer. Take the following 3-minute race segment. It gives me everything I could ask for in a race: it’s tense, it’s zippy, it’s a treat for my eyes, and it uses the theme song to perfect dramatic effect.

Go, Speed, go! I defy anyone to find me a “cartoon movie” that uses makes such bold and inventive visual choices. Did you notice that final homage to the original series? Yeah, I used to try that pose, too.Triumphant exit from car? Yes. Also the first step in a supremely awesome pimp walk.

Sadly, the clip also ends with a reminder of what’s really intolerable about the 2008 movie: a plot that revolves around big business ruining the purity of sports. Scenes of action are intercut with discussions of contracts, mergers and stock prices. The villain even gives a five-minute lecture about how races are fixed because, um, blah blah blah, big business and money and stocks. If he didn’t ramble on so long, we could get back to racing and my kids wouldn’t get bored by this plot. Which they are.

But if you can endure those bits (or ignore them… or skip-button them altogether), you can get back to other visual prestidigitation. When the Wachowskis are having fun, so should we, too. You don’t have to turn off your brain to enjoy this movie — the way so many noisy blockbusters require. Instead, just sit back and watch a Cirque du Soleil of cinema:

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