After disappointing audiences across the world with their lackluster sequels to The Matrix, The Wachowski Brothers faced an uphill climb on their next movie. Though they would go on to write and produce V for Vendetta in the interim, the big screen adaptation of the beloved ’60s cartoon Speed Racer marked their return to the director’s chair. Not everyone was thrilled. The trailers looked garish, the CGI looked cheesy and fake, star Emile Hirsch was not exactly a household name, and critics, eager to take the Wachowskis down a peg or two, had their knives out and sharpened.
Seemingly to the industry’s glee, Speed Racer was released the second weekend of May 2008 and became the first high-profile flop of the summer season. Arriving in theaters one week after the surprise success of Iron Man, Speed Racer barely moved off the starting line and only made about $40 million (it cost over $125 million). Critics despised it. Audiences rejected it. And yet, there I was – in the theater on opening night, wondering how everybody could have gotten it so wrong.
Here’s the thing about Speed Racer: it’s a kids movie, pure and simple. I think one of its biggest problems was that many expected it to be a cool action flick that kids might enjoy, sure, but not something that was made for kids. Wrong. The Wachowskis are talented guys (or gals – didn’t one of them have a sex change?). I have no doubt they made the exact movie they intended to – one aimed directly at kids and accompanying adults in touch with their inner child,
Speed Racer is a hyper, chaotic, hugely colorful live-action cartoon. The Wachowskis make the most of everything in their visual toolbox: split screens, slo-mo, swirling camera shots, extensive green screen effects work. Most of it is pretty cutting edge stuff. Does it look fake? Absolutely. But it’s all done in such a stylish, go-for-broke way that I couldn’t help but accept and embrace it. I’ve seen the movie a handful of times since (the Blu-Ray looks amazing on a big screen), and the one reoccurring thought I have is that if I were still a kid (if only), Speed Racer would blow my mind. I liken it to an adult sitting through 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. Seeing it, your eyes are opened to the endless possibilities that the film medium has to offer audiences. Ah, so this is what movies can do!
Some of the images in the movie are truly astonishing. From the swirling color kaleidoscope behind the Warner Bros. logo that opens the movie to the neon-lit nighttime racing sequences to the goosebump-inducing moments of that climactic final race (which themselves, are like something straight out of Kubrick’s 2001). You just can’t take your eyes off the screen. As ridiculous and silly as the movie can get at times (remember, it’s for kids), the images speak about 20 billion times louder than the words. The production design and costumes are fantastic and, if the movie had been better received, Oscar-worthy.
I would be remiss not to shine some critical love on the musical score by Michael Giacchino, who is not only my favorite composer, but (okay, admittedly biased) the best film composer working today. His music here adds so much to the movie. It is a fun score – playful, thrilling, energetic. Over the years, from his stellar work in TV (Lost, Alias) to movies (M:I-3, Up, The Incredibles), he’s never composed a bad score. I’m going out on a limb though and proclaiming Speed Racer his best one.
The actors are great. Every role is perfectly cast. Hirsch as Speed, Christina Ricci as Trixie, John Goodman as Pops, and Matthew Fox as (spoiler alert!) Rex – all give game performances and embrace the cartoonish nature of the movie, without becoming cartoons themselves.
Speed Racer deserves a better fate than the one it’s been given. Grab your kids, buy the Blu-Ray, turn off the lights, amp up the sound, and push play. Your eyes are about to pop.