Speed Racer Rules!

Over the weekend I made it a priority to get to a movie theatre, away from the heat, to see Speed Racer.

I’ll be honest. I was initially skeptical about this cartoon remake, thinking it was going to end up totally LAME despite the best efforts of a great cast and a pair of visionary directors. But even the previews couldn’t have prepared me for the fun, unique, visually overwhelming ride that is Speed Racer.

First, it’s full of beefcake, which is never a bad sign. Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, and the totally foxy Scott Porter (as the doomed Rex Racer) are all good to look at. Watching a shirtless Matthew Fox kick a little ninja ass was, I admit, worth the price of admission. Rounding out the beefcake are Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mr. and Mrs. Racer and Christina Ricci as Trixie, Speed’s spunky and supportive gal pal.

But aside from the obvious, the film is also just amazing. The Wachowski Brothers, who innovated film in the last decade with the stop-motion camera angle adjustment that characterized the Matrix franchise, do themselves one better here, rendering a live action/computer animation environment that is both seamless and self-referential. As a child, Speed sits in his desk chair imagining himself in a child-drawn world of race cars and lane changes, the action is absolutely absorbing, drawing the viewer into the invented, imaginary world without destroying the suspension of disbelief.

Of course, this element (and the hyperstylized “real world” Speed Racer lives in) are both nods to the original Japanese cartoon’s brand of animation. The Wachowski brothers layer in references to anime in humorous ways that draw our attention to the rest of the film—ultimately, isn’t this whole film a live-action version of anime? Or witness Trixie’s exasperated disbelief: “Oh my God, was that a ninja?” All of these elements actually increase audience participation in the invented world rather than distancing us from it. Even though the characters experience a degree of disbelief, we never do.

The production design on this film is out of control, almost obsessive-compulsive in the degree of detail and attention to which the sets, costumes, and props all come together to create a world that is simultaneously beautiful, familiar, strange, and implausible. Mid-century modern design nestles comfortably alongside invented technologies and—yes—even a domesticated monkey, who earns his keep in the film without resorting to lame explanatory tactics (in fact, we never do learn why there’s a primate in the house…). The imagined landscapes, with their rich tones and vibrant colors are virtually unforgettable. But more than anything, this is a film about lighting. Every scene is meticulously lit, shadowing faces or spraying reflected lights across Speed’s helmet. Even the obscene amount of green screened shots are lit in believable ways, rivaling Ugly Betty for the best renderings of physical space in contemporary filmmaking.

It’s a film that’s more than worth seeing; it’s a revolution. Like the best works of art in our culture, Speed Racer draws from discrete and disparate traditions and pulls them all together into a seamless stream of consciousness that has a strong heart and a quick, unstoppable pulse.

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