Don’t hate the Wachowski brothers because Speed Racer is candy-colored silliness. The movie industry has, over the last couple of decades, attempted to shift the notion of what “family filmmaking” is supposed to look like. From the storytelling sophistication of Pixar’s features to the incessant pop-culture-reference-dropping of Shrek and its clones, the focus has shifted to keeping parents just as amused as their kids. We cringe at having to endure bland and gaudy confections, forgetting that it doesn’t have to be all about our tastes. “Simple” is not, self-evidently, a pejorative term.
In fact, the word might signify glowing praise—if, in fact, that was what the Wachowskis had pulled off with Speed Racer. But in their transition from the R-rated grit of the Matrix trilogy to a PG-rated adaptation of a vintage Japan-imation TV series, the brothers never settle on a stylistic approach. Is this to be a throwback live-action translation of a kiddie cartoon? Is it a densely structured tale of corruption employing flashbacks-within-flashbacks? Is it lowbrow pandering to contemporary kids? And can it possibly work if it’s trying to be all of those things at the same time?
At times, it’s the kind of behind-the-wheel adventure world for which Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) was born. The son of car designer Pops Racer (John Goodman), young Speed grew up idolizing his driver brother Rex (Scott Porter). Now he’s the young stud with a cutie-pie girlfriend named Trixie (Christina Ricci) in a racing league that looks like what would happen if you set up a Hot Wheels track inside a computer mainframe. The Wachowskis stage wild pursuits on Moebius strip courses full of vertiginous turns, jumps and loops. Neon colors streak the track and fill the grandstands. Whenever Speed is trying to win a race—employing an array of gadgetry including jacks that catapult his car, the Mach 5, into the air like a high-performance kangaroo—it’s dizzying fun.
But periodically the checkered flag needs to wave, and it’s during this down time that the Wachowskis don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. They establish the film’s racing league as a seething pot of corporate corruption, into which an oily sponsor named Royalton (Roger Allam) tries to seduce Speed. Flashbacks introduce us to Rex’s estrangement from the Racer family, apparently succumbing to the lure of easy money before dying in a road-race explosion. An investigator shows up, along with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), to recruit Speed into an attempt to expose Royalton’s dirty dealings. Somewhere along the line, the influence of race results on various companies’ stock prices become involved. Viewers with MBAs may have a hard time keeping track of the plot’s various twists and ramifications, never mind those who haven’t yet mastered their multiplication tables.
Perhaps it was out of fear of losing their young audience entirely that the Wachowskis chose to be inappropriate in completely different ways. The goofy innocence of much of the dialogue occasionally gives way to a sucker-punch of unnecessary profanity. Speed’s mischievous younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) gets to launch a middle-finger salute at the film’s villain, and Spritle’s pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim gets in on the fun by launching a fistful of crap during a brawl. And then there’s the bad guy who forces one of his underlings to plug up the hole in his piranha tank with a finger, leading to a feeding frenzy and a plume of blood. Happy fun time, kids!
The original “Speed Racer” may be a nostalgic touchstone for Gen X-ers eager to share the experience with their own kids, but the Wachowskis haven’t re-created that experience for another generation. Instead, they’ve applied an adult understanding to the material. The multi-layered visual style, dense plotting and occasional crudeness evoke not the bright-eyed adventure of the TV series, but a tangle of the next-generation anime and graphic novels that fueled the Wachowskis’ Matrix and V for Vendetta visions. When they tap into innocence—as they do when they show young Speed’s classroom fantasies about racing glory, or Spritle’s stowaway tendencies, or the adrenaline-drenched thrill of Speed’s races—they’re on precisely the right track. It’s when they lose track of that inner kid—the one who loved “Speed Racer” and wanted to bring it to life again—that they stumble over the reality that making simple family entertainment isn’t always so simple.