I have seen “Speed Racer”, or at least what elements of it my eyes managed to pick up. And to see that is to see something indeed. And consider me a fan. I find it, on occasion, instructive to look at movies as the descendants of movies that came before them. The newer films grow up with advantages their parents never had, but if they see far it is because they stand on the shoulders of giants. For example, “Cloverfield”, one of the more interesting 2008 flicks to cross my radar, was the natural extension of the ’90s indie sensation “The Blair Witch Project”.
“Speed Racer”, then, is the offspring of the underrated 90s film “Dick Tracy”, itself a visually audacious adaptation of unpromising source material that found its genius not in narrative but in form. “Dick Tracy” had the utterly wild idea to take the color palette and design aesthetics of its comic strip literally, resulting in something we’d never seen before; “Speed Racer” also rejoices in bringing cartoons to life, primarily with respect to their physics.
It’s a digital dream, not quite a cartoon and certainly not photorealistic, where design is king: I think the moment you first fall in love with the look (or don’t) is our first exterior shot, with deep blue skies and bold green grass and everything disconcertingly in focus. To criticize it for not looking real is like refusing to see a Broadway musical because no one you know expresses themselves in song.
I hate the fact that it’s inevitably going to be called a visual effects extravaganza, because I think it’s moved beyond the realm of effects and into just being a partially animated film, and we should discuss it in terms of design and photography rather than pixels. But I have had my tantrum.
(Bear in mind I’m no Wachowski apologist; I despise “The Matrix” and I found their bowdlerization of “V for Vendetta” irresponsible. Nor am I defending it out of love for the source material; my only familiarity with the anime comes from the GEICO and “Family Guy” parodies. I’m just saying, here.)
The plot and the writing are more or less what they need to be. Remember, this is an experience of form, not narrative. We’re not reading it, we’re watching it, basking in it, taking in the motion of images. We are attending the ballet, or a photography expo. With all this said, one scene of flirtation goes on entirely too long. (Oh well.) And the one genuinely interesting plot development, which reverses something uninteresting, re-reverses to uninteresting just in time for the big finish. (Oh well again.)
Where the narrative element shines is in the performances, which are about as pitch-perfect as you could ask for. Emile Hirsch’s role is thankless, to be certain, but he gets across the notion of this kid for whom racing is everything. Christina Ricci is sexy as all get-out. The great John Goodman and also-great Susan Sarandon are very smart choices that give the film its heart. Even the supporting roles rarely miss a beat: Roger Allam makes a wonderfully slimy villain, and Paulie Litt is one funny little kid. And there’s a monkey!
With “Star Wars” prequel alumni David Tattersall and Roger Barton on board, the film moves, just as it should. Technically, some of the digital environments are better than others: many shots just plain don’t look good, and look like screengrabs from video games rather than impressions of impossible things. The biggest flaw, though, is the film’s constant insistence on using its characters as borders for wipes. This is cute the first five times and becomes nearly intolerable by the hundredth (that is not an exaggeration).
It demands to be seen in a theater. It probably does not demand, or even need, to be seen more than once. Nor is it an experience that needs sequels or knock-offs, at least not now. In five or ten or twenty years another such film will come along, the natural extension of this one. And I’ll say the same thing: “You’ve never seen anything like this.”
After all, last I heard the whole art form goes back to people just being thrilled to watch a shot of a train arriving at a station.