The Plot: With a father who builds race cars and an older brother who was a famous driver before his untimely death, it's no surprise that ever since a young age, all Speed Racer has wanted to do is drive race cars. Now an up and coming competitor in the futuristic racing league which his brother used to be a part of, Speed is given an ultimatum by the greedy owner of a powerful and prosperous racing team which puts his family in danger. Against all odds, Speed sets out to win the upcoming Grand Prix and show the world that he has what it takes to be the best racer in the history of the circuit, all the while ensuring that no harm comes to those he cares for the most.
The Review: Having never really been a fan of the Speed Racer cartoon series, I wasn't so much looking forward to seeing live-action interpretations of Speed and his family or expecting much from the story of this film. I was mainly excited to see another film from the guys who gave us the visually spectacular Matrix trilogy and hoping to once again be wowed by their visual style and ingenuity, which based on the trailers and commercials, seemed like a strong possibility. As it happens, The Wachowski brothers managed to surprise me as much with their film's strong, likable characters as they did with their wild special effects.
Emile Hirsch always visually looked the part of Speed Racer, but was also able to succeed in grounding the unbelievable events and locales surrounding his character with realistic emotions and perspective. If Hirsch hadn't been so likable and believable despite the cartoony situations that his character found himself in, the story would have lost just about all of it's accessibility to the audience. He was really the linchpin which held this movie together. This is not to say, however, that he didn't have a capable supporting cast behind him. John Goodman was also incredibly lovable as Pops Racer, as were Susan Surandon as Mom and Christina Ricci as Speed's girlfriend Trixie. As a fan of the show LOST I was happy to see Matthew Fox in any capacity, but he really sold the character of the mysterious Racer X in every scene which he was a part of. Paulie Litt capably and likably portrayed Speed's younger brother Spritle, though in the case of his character I felt that he caused some of the problems that I had with the movie (more on that in a bit). The racer family's mechanic Sparky, as played by Kick Gurry, was a good character, but I personally felt that he was a little bit short-changed in the character development department. His presence is sprinkled here and there throughout the film only when he's necessary, which would have been fine aside from his role in the film's climax. Sparky seemingly comes out of nowhere to lend an technical (for Speed) and emotional (for the audience) hand to Emile Hirsch's character, which felt out of place considering that he had only been a background character up until that point. I wouldn't have taken him out of those scenes at the end of the film by any means, but I couldn't help but feel that he deserved to be featured a little more prominently, or at least introduced better, toward the beginning of the film.
As I said in the beginning of this review, I was more interested in the visuals of Speed Racer than I was in the characters and story (at least going in), so what did I think of the look of the movie? I'd say that I loved about 95% of the visuals. Despite the film being live-action, it managed to have a very animated feel at points, which I often loved, but occasionally disliked. Where the effects really came into play though, was during the races. I recall reading that the Wachowski brothers had developed some sort of new camera technology or technique for the filming of Speed Racer, but I'm not really sure what it added to the experience. Whatever it was though, it worked like a charm, because every single race sequence was clear, beautiful, and exciting as hell. Whereas I've taken the stance that some recent effects-heavy films (such as Transformers) are too confusing for their own good during the scenes which everyone has really come to see (those being the action sequences), all of the action in Speed Racer was surprisingly easy to follow despite the high speeds at which everything was happening. There were also enough "wow" moments to keep, I would assume, just about anyone's eyes glued to the screen. Cars are constantly soaring through the air, rotating in any number of directions at once, slamming into one another, and often times deploying incredible (and occasionally hilarious) weapons and defensive technology from within their chassis'. Slow motion shots, wacky screen wipes, and any number of other unique and interesting editing techniques were also regularly employed to keep things moving at a pace deserving of the name Speed Racer. Outside of the races, there were even a few fun and/or exciting fight sequences, which were welcome additions to the film from the creators of Neo and Agent Smith.
As for what I didn't like about Speed Racer, there is a specific section of the film which didn't really appeal to me. The movie opens with a doozy of a montage which perfectly introduces the audience to the majority of the main characters, as well as informing the viewer of the necessary back story elements allowing us to understand the world we'll be living in for the next 2+ hours. After the montage we get the set-up for the main plot line, which I'd say lasts for about twenty or thirty minutes. Next we get into the actual plot and follow Speed on his journey toward victory and redemption, followed by the final race and the film's climax. The points in the plot which I wasn't 100% happy with all occurred during those twenty to thirty minutes following the opening montage. At this point in the movie we are introduced to the villain and a lot of the forthcoming story is set up, and I didn't mind those aspects of this period in the film. What I didn't particularly care for was some of the humor. I understand how that may sound considering the overall light-hearted nature of the subject matter and the Speed Racer franchise as a whole, but while everything following the ultimatum that the villain gives to Speed is packed with action, emotion, and drama, the sequences between the montage and said ultimatum were a bit too overbearingly corny for me. Since these events occurred rather early on in the film I was initially very worried that I wouldn't enjoy the entirety of Speed Racer, but thankfully by the time the real threat to Speed's family comes into play the movie becomes less of a silly children's comedy and more of a compelling story with noteworthy humorous beats and winks to the audience on the side. Scenes such as the visually messy sequence when Spritle is zipping around the Royalton factory in a little golf cart-ish vehicle driven by his monkey Chim-Chim made me nervous about what I'd be forced to sit through for the next hour and a half (approximately). Again, I understand that Speed Racer is a cartoony and light-hearted property, but while the humor was expertly handled in almost every other part of the movie, some moments toward the beginning were a bit much for me.
The Verdict: Barring a few (what I felt to be) poorly placed comical moments, Speed Racer was a hilarious, exciting, and overall well-rounded film. All of the actors were spot on, the visual effects were absolutely stunning, and once the plot got rolling it had my complete and utter attention for the remainder of it's running time. The best way to describe the experience of watching Speed Racer is to simply say that it was one hell of a fun ride.