Short version: Speed Racer is strictly for kids, big time nostalgia-feeling fans of the original series and perhaps video game addicts.
Considering all I’d heard about and seen via trailers and clips about Speed Racer, I was almost concerned about what it would be like to watch it on a gigantic IMAX screen. I thought perhaps it would give me a huge headache or perhaps induce some psychotic state in me, or worse – my daughter.
Ah, but 11 year olds brains are hardwired for this kind of stuff, so not to worry – she’s fine.
the film starts with a tribute to the opening of the original series which if you’re a fan I think you’ll find very cool. It then goes right into showing us a young Speed Racer (yes, for the uninitiated, that is his name) and in a funny opening sequence shows us that he was apparently born to be a race car driver, much to the detriment of his school work.
We meet his brother Rex, who picks him up from school in the iconic Mach 5 car and a few seconds later you get your first clue of the visual look of the movie. I expected as they pulled back to show them pulling away that other cars would look like regular old automobiles, but they all have a futuristic look to them – so much so that the Mach 5 looks like just another car.
Rex indulges Speed by taking him to the race track for a practice run, and we see the bond between them as Speed sits in Rex’s lap, steering the car at what we would call wildly insane speeds. In one rather silly moment, Rex tells Speed to close his eyes so he can hear what the car is telling him – while rocketing down a curve-laden track at speeds over 100mph.
Soon thereafter Rex leaves home on bad terms with his father, “Pops” Racer who tells Rex if he leaves he can never come back. From there Rex seems to “go to the dark side” becoming one of the most notorious drivers on the race circuit., causing crashes and all sorts of mayhem. Eventually it seems that he himself is claimed as a casualty in a fatal car wreck of his own in an ice cave.
Cut to Speed as a young man (21?) and he’s on the rise as one of the hottest race car drivers out there. The “Racer” family are independent racers, with no corporate sponsers (who Pops considers “the devil”). So I guess they only earn income from race winnings?
Anyway, they are approached by the owner of Royalton Industries, a snake-charmer of a guy who wants to bring the Racer family on board in order to “give them a better life.” Of course there’s a catch and it’s eventually revealed to Speed who declines and is then a target on the track of every other driver in any race.
While I really think Speed Racer is a “love it or hate it” kind of movie, I managed to fall somewhere in the middle. Again, remember this is a review of the IMAX version of the film, so that influences my reaction to it. The visuals, on that enormous screen were for lack of a better word: crazy. It truly is an eyeball-shattering intense CGI-carnival assault on the senses. I’m actually not sure if watching this in IMAX may have been a bad idea – this movie may be similar to Cloverfield in that it may be better viewed on a TV screen.
It wasn’t just the psychedelic visuals that bothered me – it was the placing of live action characters into that canvas. Except for the obviously monsterous budget of the movie, it struck me that if it had been only 10 minutes long it could have been considered some indie experimental film. I blame George Lucas for introducing the idea of sticking live actors into 99% CGI environments. I just don’t like it. It seems weird and my mind battles to figure out whether it’s looking at a CGI animated movie or a live action film.
Having said that, I actually think this would have worked much, much better if they had just gone all the way and made it a completely CGI animated film. Having the anchor of real actors in a sea of such extreme, colorful, physics-bending environments just doesn’t work for me. I think they should have either toned down the look of the film for a live action version or just replaced the actors with stylized CGI characters.
What was good about it? The fact that the further you get into the film the better it seems to get. The races get better, the story improves and overall there’s a good, positive message delivered to kids in the audience about family, standing up for what you believe in and courage in the face of adversity.
The final race in particular was pretty action packed, although to me it suffered some of the same issues as similar scenes in Transformers: too much going on, making it difficult to even focus on what you’re looking at.
In particular I thought Emil Hirsche as Speed did an admirable job and I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Lost‘s Matthew Fox as Racer X just because he seemed to be enjoying himself so much in the role.
One of the highlights was also young Paulie Litt as Spritle, who provided pretty much any of the laughs in the film.
On the other hand, it’s bizarre seeing humans in a pretty much cartoon environment and if I’m going to nitpick, it seemed like the much used word “ass” in the film was stuck in there just to avoid a dreaded G rating.
On a final note, walking out to the parking lot I almost felt like I had stepped into a sensory deprivation tank after that all over-stimulation.
So there you have it. If you have kids but aren’t a fan of the original, I suggest you drop them, off head to the theater next door… and watch Iron Man again.