Off track 

Speed Racer

It moves fast, but following the car is easier than following - the money.
  • It moves fast, but following the car is easier than following the money.

Speed Racer (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown

Don't hate the Wachowski brothers because Speed Racer is candy-colored silliness.

The movie industry has, over the last couple 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. "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? A densely structured tale of corruption? Lowbrow pandering to contemporary kids?

And can it possibly work if it's trying to be all of those things simultaneously?

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), 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 driving, 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 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. 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 becomes involved. Viewers with MBAs may have a hard time keeping track of all this, 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 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) launches a middle-finger salute at the film's villain, and Spritle's pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim tosses a fistful of crap during a brawl. And then there's the bad guy, who forces one of his underlings to plug the hole in his piranha tank with a finger, leading to a feeding frenzy. Happy fun time, kids!

The original Speed Racer is a nostalgic touchstone, and you can see Gen-Xers being eager to share the experience with their own kids. When the Wachowskis tap into innocence showing young Speed's classroom fantasies about racing glory, or Spritle's stowaway tendencies, or the adrenaline-drenched races they're on precisely the right track. It's when they lose that inner kid that they stumble over the reality that making simple family entertainment isn't always so simple.


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