First, a disclaimer: I never watched "Speed Racer" as a kid. Prior to screening the Wachowski’s 2008 take on the Japanese anime series that transitioned to American television in the late sixties and birthed a legion of "Racer" fans, I polled friends - and found quite a few aficionados. Despite the obvious family-oriented plotting of the film (clearly tuned to the under-ten set, along with their lunchboxes, iPods and t-shirts), the Wachowskis clearly seek to appeal also to those older devotees, nostalgic for a new-century taste of Speed, Racer X and the rest of the fast-wheeling gang.
Well, they got it half-right.
For those ignorant of the source material, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a boy enamored of two things: race car driving and his older brother Rex (hottie Scott Porter of "Friday Night Lights" fame), whose talents behind the wheel he idolizes. When Rex is killed in a fiery crash, Speed takes up the racing mantle, under the tutelage of Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman) and with trusty Trixie (Christina Ricci) at his side. But in choosing not to accept the sponsorship of gazillionaire Royalton (Roger Allam), he makes an enemy determined to see him share his brother’s fate.
The unabashedly seditious nature of the plot is true-blue Wachowski; having assaulted governmental corruption and control in the "Matrix" trilogy and "V for Vendetta," Larry and Andy have, in "Speed Racer," moved on to corporate greed. It’s no less an effective target, and with the delicious devilry of Allam at their fingertips, the first half of the film dazzles with special effects while it drips with sarcasm. From a whiz-bang point of view, the film is absolutely turbo-charged with colorful visuals plastered over its breakneck pace. Moreover, Hirsch, Sarandon and Goodman acquit nicely their well-written dialogue, managing to piece together an image of a loving nuclear family amidst the ocular overload. For quite some time, the film really works.
Once the stakes rise for Speed, however, the film’s weaknesses shift into gear. In preserving the manga-anime storyline of the original series, yet turbocharging both the cars and the onscreen effects, the Wachowskis end up tailspinning the movie into a universe with no apparent rules. It’s one thing to soup up the Mach 5 with its traditional eight buttons (marked "A" through "H"). It’s quite another to send the car, along with its competitors, flying, spinning, jumping, slashing, burning, grinding, ghosting, dragging and breaking the sound barrier as they travel impossibly imagined racetracks. There appear to be no rules in effect when the starting pistol is fired, neither for the drivers nor for the seemingly unbelievable range of death defying tricks that fly in the face of the natural order as we know it. Audiences will find little reason to be truly concerned for Speed’s safety - after all, there’s always another button to, I dunno, make his car burst into flames while jumping end over end, only to (of course) return to the ground to safely motor on at full-speed.
We can forgive (barely) the necessity of having a teenager’s parents cheer him into repetitive death matches on the race-track, but it’s a little more difficult to make sense of his confusing relationship with Trixie (familial? sexual? professional?). Fox’s character, in contrast, is unrelentingly somber, and the comic relief - Speed’s younger brother and his pet monkey - are far more annoying than funny. Moreover, "family fare" is a poor substitute for the social mythology invented within the Matrix; here, sexuality is reduced to colorful, geometric abstraction, and futuristic grit ground to an ill-fitting mixture of bright, shiny tomorrows outfitted with the wholesome hairdos and clothing styles of Technicolor yesterdays.
The film will absolutely appeal to your youngster. Take them. Watch their eyes glaze over at the visual cacophony. Shell out $20 for the requisite lunchbox. Concern yourself briefly as to whether the Wachowski’s sociopolitical paranoia is best suited for kids ill-equipped to parse out the guts from the glitz. At least you can be certain that the film will become their summer fave. Because if it’s yourself that you hope will be entertained by this nostalgic trip back to childhood, you’re likely to find yourself longing for something far more mundane than memories: aspirin.