U.S. Release Date: May 9, 2008
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Lilly & Lana Wachowski
Producer: Joel Silver
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking)

Cartoon Remake Crosses Finish Line in Style
by Scott Holleran

Take the family to see the exciting Speed Racer, which starts slow, idles, then builds momentum. Like a sports car, beneath the flashy exterior is a well-built vehicle with a purring motor that powers a smooth ride, courtesy of writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski. To paraphrase the theme song, Speed's a demon on wheels.

Based on Japan's campy cartoon series, which gained a following in American television syndication decades ago, the elements are in place. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the middle child in a family of three boys and a pet chimpanzee. Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pop (John Goodman) run a racing garage with the help of a scrawny mechanic named Sparky (whom they've made Australian).

With gaping age differences, Speed's brothers include heroic, older Rex and tubby young Spritle, whose names are as offbeat as the movie. The Racer boys represent what made the odd family involving in the series (which I watched): their individuality. The show was a curious hybrid of postwar Japanese and American cultures; a strong, male-oriented family of individuals with distinctive characteristics.

Add to that, Speed's smart, tomboy girlfriend, trusting Trixie (the 1967 comics-based series was created before feminism contaminated the culture), mysterious, handsome driving ace Racer X (Matthew Fox, nailing the part as usual) and a domesticated chimp named Chim-Chim that hides in Speed's trunk with junk food junkie Spritle. Speed's Mach 5 car, in bright white with red markings, is prominently featured and accurately recreated.

Visually, the Wachowski brothers' movie is strikingly colorful—unfurled in fast-moving pictures as a lifelike cartoon strip, recalling Warren Beatty's gorgeous Dick Tracy—and it's action-packed. But it is not an assault on the eyeballs. Speed Racer is built for families, not for fanboys.

In the lead, Hirsch is weak but satisfactory. Lacking the full-length physicality of the cartoon's dynamic, grunting and intense title character, he is a pale imitation, with or without the jet-black helmet of Elvis hair. The movie transcends him.

A long-winded first half eventually pays off while an unequivocally anti-capitalist conflict with a stereotypically evil businessman (Roger Allam) flops, even on its own terms, wrongly pitting profit against integrity. The false dichotomy thankfully recedes into oblivion.

That good versus evil plot pivots on Speed's initial victory, which nearly breaks the record of his older brother (whom the family mourns after a deadly car crash) and catapults Speed to the big time. With Roger Allam's billionaire villain wooing Speed and the Racer family with riches, it's a whole new world.

This is where the rubber meets the road, not that one really sees that happen in this super-tech fantasy world, where cars seem to defy the laws of physics. Speed, his honest family and their business rise above the widespread corruption and stand for the triumph of the good.

Trying to beat the businessman's bought drivers, Speed teams with red-hot Racer X and an Oriental punk (an actor named Rain in a catastrophic debut). He upgrades the Mach 5 to perform fabulously impossible automotive feats—remember those cheesy jing-jing sound effects from the show?—and he takes the track at the tropical Casa Cristo 5000 competition, dreaming of acing the Grand Prix.

There isn't enough about the mechanics of improving a car's racing performance and subplots tend to overlap in confusing ways, especially during the first 45 minutes. But Speed accelerates on the curve—with underused Trixie (Christina Ricci) getting a Gothic look—and he pulls into a thrilling final lap.

"Stop steering and start driving," Rex instructs his younger brother early in the action and the remainder of Speed Racer cashes in on that simple advice. Mom (Miss Sarandon in milk and cookies mode) and Pops (always reliable Goodman) and their brood—also Trixie and Sparky—have an encouraging and highly positive effect on passive Speed.

Speed Racer is a stylized cartoon with live actors and spurts and streaks of stimulating sounds, colors and action. In spite of its anti-business bent, it is an exciting piece of entertainment—an emotional embrace of family as the fuel of one's highest aspirations. Ultimately, Speed Racer is a dazzling depiction of a young man, oiled by his family's values, who is driven to be his best.

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