I'm not ashamed to admit I LOVE Speed Racer. Not the animated TV series, with whom I have only a passing acquaintance, but the hyper-stylized, hyper-kinetic new movie adapted from it; bafflingly, I seem to be in the minority among film critics. Despite a number of favorable quotes on the film's newspaper ads, including one by Richard Corliss of Time, most critics have trashed the movie. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker went so far as to call it a work of "pop fascism" (puh-leeze), and warned parents not to take their kids. Such bad advance notices do seem to have scared families away and cursed the film with a relatively meager $18 million dollar opening weekend.
This is a shame, and I've become convinced in recent days (especially after viewing the allegedly family-friendly The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, but more on that in my next review) that most contemporary critics wouldn't know a good family film if it bit them in the ass. Speed Racer even features devotion to family and the importance of family unity as its central themes, but the movie still can't catch a break.
Never mind that, as written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix trilogy fame, Speed Racer is also extremely well-acted by a big-name cast. Rising star Emile Hirsch, as the title character, employs a perfect balance of innocence and obsession, which is no easy feat. Susan Sarandon, as Mom Racer, is more down-to-earth and emotionally affecting than she's been in a few years, and John Goodman, as Pops Racer, is the most relaxed and enjoyable he's been on screen since The Flintstones. Christina Ricci is delightful as always as Speed's faithful girlfriend, Trixie, and Matthew Fox of TV's Lost brings unexpected gravitas to the mysterious Racer X. A talented international cast brings the film's remaining assortment of fellow racers, corporate baddies, sportscasters and ninjas to vivid life.
Never mind that the film's creators have seemingly perfected the use of computer graphics and digital environments in their achievement of a stunningly detailed, color-saturated yet organic-feeling world. Critics went ga-ga when Warren Beatty created a similar, cartoon-inspired world in 1990's Dick Tracy (that film's art direction won an Oscar), but some of those same critics are thoroughly unimpressed here.
Never mind that nobody dies in Speed Racer's moral/ethical universe, not even the vilest of the villains. The drivers involved in the film's explosive car crashes are delivered to safety via what look like form-fitting soap bubbles, and live to race another day. The Wachowskis' refusal to indulge violent impulses apart from a couple of comical fistfights struck me as truly refreshing, especially with Iron Man blasting presumed, not necessarily confirmed, terrorists in the next auditorium.
And never mind that Speed Racer's script features some great, timely and occasionally even poetic dialogue about corporate greed, family values, personal achievement and social responsibility. Even if some of it does, admittedly, go on a bit too long, it beats anything currently masquerading as dialogue in big-budget studio films.
My partner and my 40-year old self enjoyed watching Speed Racer as much as, and possibly more than, the children who were seated around us. We all found it entertaining, engrossing and exhilarating. For two hours and fifteen minutes on Sunday night, we were on "speed" and we loved it. Go see it!
UPDATE: Speed Racer is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.