Leave it to the Wachowski brothers to throw themselves into the kids’ cinema genre with the big guns and big ideas a-blazing. In bringing the loveably kitschy Japanese anime classic Speed Racer to the big screen, the siblings best known for The Matrix pack a special effects-blitzed punch (or series of punches) and ultimately overstuff the package. Our senses begin to reel around the two-hour mark, the initial charm having worn thin and the simple narrative dizzied by the kinetic overkill. But there’s no denying that the brothers have cooked up an inventive new entity in the cracks between real and animated media.
What results from their handiwork is a hyper-fizzy, loudly colored cocktail of live action and animation. Pushing the idea of comic book-style montage to new places, the brothers tell a story in which faces glide across the screen and the action is layered in a fresh, fast, and furious way. Underlying the basic tale of car racing zeal is a theme of independence prevailing over corporate control and corruption: Young Speed (Emile Hirsch) wants to drive his Mach 5 to glory and trophies, while preserving the integrity of a sport threatened by all manner of graft and back-room manipulations.
For the occasion, the filmmakers have also drawn some serious acting talent into the project, including Susan Sarandon as Speed’s mom and John Goodman as the trusty ally and fiercely independent racecar designer. Hirsch’s fresh-faced, gee-whiz performance in the lead role is just about the polar opposite of his quasi-Bohemian role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Christina Ricci is similarly peach-faced and dressed up in cartoony primary colors, and the consummation of her love with Speed culminates with a lip-smack scene playfully censored-for those cootie-fearing kids in the audience-by the perky wee Racer brother, Paulie Litt.
In innocent moments like this, our discerning, adult movie-going sensors become short-circuited. We suddenly realize that those over the age of say 13 may have an entirely different take on the Wachowskis’ grand adventure, unless you’re easily able to access the 13-year-old within.