Bottom Line: A Saturday morning live-action cartoon with stellar visual effects but rudimentary story and characters.
May 1, 2008
Opens: Friday, May 9 (Warner Bros.)
Amid the current push by filmmakers to deny photo-reality in favor of animated impressionism comes "Speed Racer," a Wachowski Brothers motion picture derived from a '60s Japanese cartoon television series that is itself inspired by a Japanese manga.
In this aggressively rudimentary emotional drama designed -- literally -- around impossible racing car action, actors are painted into a cartoon world through CGI and vividly colored backgrounds as images move across the screen like shifting panels in a comic strip. The basic laws of gravity and aerodynamics aren't simply denied; they are totally repealed. This causes the sensation of being trapped inside a 3-D video game.
While multitudes of young people the world over undoubtedly will make a dash for this new movie experience from the siblings who created "The Matrix" series, the film plays very young. Unlike a Pixar cartoon that embraces as wide an audience as possible, "Speed Racer" proudly denies entry into its ultra-bright world to all but gamers, fanboys and anime enthusiasts. Story and character are tossed aside to focus obsessively on PG-rated action and milk-guzzling heroes.
The film, which the Wachowskis also wrote, pits the Racer family of car nuts -- Rex, long dead thanks to race track malevolence; young brother Speed (Emile Hirsch); Pops (John Goodman); Mom (Susan Sarandon); kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt); and a chimp named Chim Chim -- against an evil automotive magnate (Roger Allam). He fixes races, probably killed Rex and when Speed turns down a lucrative driving contract, he means to destroy the Racers.
Like any good video game, each race happens in a completely different environment from tropical island loop-the-loops to a race that starts in a North African desert, takes off into a Mediterranean Grand Corniche and winds up at the Brandenberg Gate. The possible miscalculation here are the wearying number of races that all look alike no matter what the backgrounds. Two climactic races might be one more than any film can successfully sustain.
There is a certain desperation at work here where the filmmakers seek to offset story lags -- i.e., everything between the races -- with chimpanzee tricks, kid-brother high jinks, Ninja martial arts by the whole family and a raft of vicious yet harmless villains.
The whole thing, curiously enough, reminds you of Disney's 1982 "Tron," the very first attempt to make a live-action movie look like something spit out by a computer.
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox. Screenwriters-directors: Andy and Larry Wachowski. Producers: Joel Silver, Grant Hill, Andy and Larry Wachowski. Rated PG, 136 minutes.