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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Built for Speed (Speed Racer)

From the Matrix to the playpen

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I was born a year too soon for the “Speed Racer” television show. Other than overhearing the irritatingly insistent theme song, I was never exposed to it. “Speed Racer” was kid stuff—a show for fourth graders when I was ready for grade five. Those are the years when minute age differences can make all the difference in the world.

The minds behind The Matrix, Larry and Andy Wachowski, must have been just the right age when “Speed Racer” debuted on American television in the late 1960s. The edited English-language version of the Japanese anime series was apparently a favorite in their playroom. And who knows whether “Speed Racer’s” automobile age update of the Samurai spirit, with its youthful hero bouncing like a pinball from cartoon obstacles, planted seeds that would blossom decades later in The Matrix.

The brothers Wachowski have returned to their childhood fountainhead of inspiration by writing and directing Speed Racer the feature film. The result has been criticized in the media for being puerile but, after all, it is intended as a children’s movie. Although years later Speed Racer is still kid’s stuff, its makers appear to have had a blast producing it, and the story is not without worthwhile implications.

Faithful to the form and spirit of the original anime show? I’m not competent to pass judgment on that question. What I can say is that the Wachowskis have drawn from diverse visual elements for the film’s design, including backdrops reflecting fanciful, visually dense impressions of anime. The kinetic circus sometimes resembles a video game or suggests that the speeding cars and their drivers are like careening skateboarders at that state of harmony in motion—a Zen-like flow between man and machine. Non-animated settings are usually in bright paint box hues. The hyper-real suburban home of the Racer family is a gloriously colored pastiche of ’50s-’60s interior design with eye-popping floral wallpaper and funky geometric furnishings.

The soul of the story concerns family. Speed Racer (played by Emile Hirsch in the earnest cartoon hero mode) is on a mission to avenge the reputation of his dead older brother, ruined after standing up to the sinister cabal that fixes every auto race. He is also trying to save the family motor company, about to be gobbled up by equally sinister corporate interests.

Fortunately, Speed finds others in the world of false appearances who are fighting for justice and integrity, specifically the suave Eurocop called Inspector Detector and his masked sidekick, Racer X. Joining forces, this dynamic threesome will try to break the octopus grip of those whose ultimate aim is to monopolize the whole world.

No one in the cast will earn an Oscar nomination but it must be remembered that the big names—Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie, Matthew Fox as the implacable Racer X and John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as Speed’s parents—are consciously playing cartoon characters. Everyone is an embodiment of cardinal virtues or vices, set against a blue screen backdrop of colorful attention deficit activity. It’s kid stuff to be sure, but the actors also appear to be having fun in their roles along with their directors.