Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Go Wachowskis, Go!

A year ago, the film community had almost forgotten about Speed Racer, caring only about its box office failure and the horrible critical consensus. I, on the other hand, loved it and took comfort in finding that Dennis Cozzalio, Richard Corliss, and Rob Humanick shared my enthusiasm. The film ended up on all four of our lists of favorite movies for 2008 (Cozzalio: #1, Corliss: #9, Humanick: #2) but it will take some time for the cult of Speed Racer to grow. Allow me to add another voice to the choir singing the praises of this film that was so unfairly beaten up and left for dead. This is a future cult classic.

Like most little boys, I loved Saturday morning cartoons, the louder, the flashier, the more action-packed the better. Sure, the quieter, funnier ones were great but they failed to occupy the same fever-dream intensity in the imagination that boiled them out onto the playground. The genius of the Wachowski Brothers’ film adaptation of the early pre-anime series Speed Racer is in its effortless capturing of those feelings. The film is a big, over-the-top, live-action cartoon, and unapologetically so. The film is a wide-eyed digital creation, a film of non-stop action and intense gumball colors that pop and blur and burn their ways across the screen.

It’s every boy’s cartoon-fueled fantasy filmed and thrown onto the screen. It’s fitting that the film opens with a young Speed Racer sitting in class daydreaming about being a racecar driver. The classroom melts away into a childish doodle of a race that soon slides into the most remarkably dense and layered opening sequence of any film this year with three flashbacks simultaneously unfolding. It’s smart of the Wachowskis to throw us right into a race-sequence (two of the flashbacks are races). As fun as the film is, when the cars take off down the track the movie becomes a flashing, spinning, kaleidoscopic, neon pinball machine. These exciting races are not only inspired by the original show’s early-anime aesthetic but seem equally inspired by Hot Wheels, “Mario Kart,” and “Wacky Races” while still seeming radically original in execution and style. The look is, in influences, part futuristic, part retro, but all cartoon.

The races take up a good portion of the film but the plot itself is a topsy-turvy speed through all kinds of cartoon clichés which are invigorated by the pitch-perfect cartoonish performances by all involved. All of the performers know exactly the kind of movie they are in and acts accordingly. Emile Hirsch hits just the right notes of earnest naiveté as Speed Racer who races in the shadow of his older brother who was killed racing years before. His father (a perfectly paternal John Goodman) and mother (Susan Sarandon bringing just enough maternal warmth) support him, as does his younger brother (Paulie Litt, the right amount of annoying). They’re a family right out of the 1950’s but the villains are right out of a mid-80’s cartoon: a nefarious head of a corporation (Roger Allam) with a troupe of slimy henchmen out to fix the race. While on the subject of performances and casting, why don’t we pause to marvel at Christina Ricci (playing Trixi, Speed’s girlfriend), who, through a combination of costuming, hairstyling, makeup and genetics has the perfect look of a cartoon heroine with her big, wide eyes.

This is an overstuffed and over-the-top film with moneys, ninjas, piranhas, cars, trucks, booby traps, throwing stars, and machine guns but the Wachowskis never seem to be operating with a checklist of cartoon staples and stereotypes. Even moments as bizarre as a monkey, drunk on candy, driving a vehicle and rocking out to Lynyrd Skynyrd almost, no, definitely, make sense in context. All sorts of puns and slapstick that, in any other setting, would have no reason to be funny work surprisingly well. I had to laugh with glee when, in the middle of the race, while still in their cars, one racer punches another in the face. As with anything radically original, there will be those resistant to its charms. Don’t listen to them. This is truly a film that has to be seen to be believed.

A decade ago, Andy and Larry Wachowski made the genre-busting, envelope pushing special-effects picture The Matrix, a film the ramifications of which are still being felt in the genre. Blockbusters still ape the color palate and every action film slightly out of the ordinary can count on finding someone to call it “the next Matrix.” Now, with Speed Racer, the Wachowskis, dare I say it, have bested themselves. They have created a heart-pounding action-adventure family film that’s such a radical and successful fusion of style and content that it’s nearly impossible to copy. This is uniquely exhilarating, startlingly vivid filmmaking that creates a delirious candy-coated kaleidoscope of colors that swirl and mix to make up this live-action cartoon that is a persistent and immersive world that exists only in the realm of the imagination.

The fluid, dynamic and expressive score from Michael Giacchino, in concert with the sensational sound editing, work overtime to keep the ears as dazzled as the eyes; the technicians are more than successful. Yes, the film can at times be overwhelming, threatening sensory overload, but it’s the same effect cartoons can have on kids. This is terrific entertainment, not just for its technical achievement but because it had me stumble exhilarated from the theater pulse-pounding, blinking the colors from my eyes, and with a smile so wide it hurt my face.

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