Thursday, May 29, 2008


Speed Racer is a revolutionary reinvention of everything we've come to understand as "cinema." It is also the defining film of Summer 2008, one that will influence the visual style of countless future films with similar aspirations.

But here's the rub: while the film will define this Summer season with the virtuosity of its stunning visual style, the film itself has failed in an attempt to fully define itself. As a result, audiences have not arrived in droves. In fact, it sort of seems like they've stayed away in droves. The film's unfortunate and unworthy box office result is not surprising, given the film's sheer, boundary-crushing, status quo-redefining visual palette. People never quite knew what to make of this weird, wild new world of bright colors, moving backgrounds, and incessantly visceral action sequences. However, time will be on Speed Racer's side. In the years to come, people will remember the impact and power of this film, perhaps even more so than the impact of massively successful and entirely different Iron Man.

The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry, those wacky, audacious sibling directors who previously changed the action film landscape with The Matrix and its two sequels, return to their director's chairs for the first time in five bring us a bright, funny, PG-rated film for the whole family? It might seem like an odd fit, but the Wachowskis have never been big on "making things fit." Their specialty is redefining our expectations to fit their own brilliant vision. And Speed Racer is no exception.

Most of us are familiar with the original Speed cartoons, those fast-paced, high-intrigue blasts of retro-anime delight. And for years, several different filmmakers have entered the Speed Racer fray, attempting to bring the cartoon to full, big-sceen life--and then promptly exited said fray after failing to form a legitimate vision. Taking a few steps back to get a greater perspective, Speed Racer's long journey to the big screen is actually indicative of the much greater Hollywood conundrum: making a live-action version of the ever-expressive, ever-outlandish, ever-unreal world of Japanese anime. Japan has continually produced some of the greatest animators the world has ever known, among them Katsuhiro Otomo, director of the legendary anime film, Akira; Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Cowboy Bebop, one of Japan's most popular serials in the U.S.; and probably the greatest of them all, Hayao Miyazaki, director of films such films as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. The anime style is continually copied but never accurately reproduced by animators the world over--a style that consists of big, expressive eyes; spectacular, other-worldly action sequences; and a color palette that uses seemingly every possible shade on the visible spectrum. In short, it is nearly impossible to capture the power of anime in a live-action film. "Live-action," it would seem, is nearly a contradiction to the anime style.

With Speed Racer, Andy and Larry Wachowski have accomplished the impossible: they have made the world's first live-action anime film, one that pops and shines with all of the animated form's intangible gloss, and one that explodes off the screen like a stunning, virtual-reality experience. They have also crafted a wonderful screenplay that speaks to the heart in us all, and places the pulse-pounding action of their film in a firmly-grounded context of ever-identifiable humanity.

The story is simple: Speed (Emile Hirsch) is emerging as one of the greatest drivers to ever step on the racetrack. He is also living in the shadow of his older brother, Rex, who was racing's Golden Boy, and who disappeared mysteriously when Speed was very young. The film tells the story of how Speed comes into his own, and how he finds his soul amid a racing world that is becoming increasingly dominated by marketing, money, and megalomaniacs. There are lots of intriguing sideplots, some of which become just slightly too complicated for their own good. But the heart of this story lies in the struggle of Speed's heart and head: can he, and should he, step out of the shadow of his beloved brother; can he, and should he, become part of a well-oiled racing conglomerate and abandon the independent team formed by his gruff-but-loving father, Pops Racer (John Goodman, perfection); can he, and should he, be part of a racing league that is being taken over by corporate greed and underhanded business...or will he, CAN he, take the racing world back to its true, humble roots?

Speed Racer is a stunning, unmatched filmmaking accomplishment. The Wachowskis instinctually realize what no other filmmakers currently do: if you want to make a film in the image of an artform that transcends the live-action tradition, then you have to make a film that transcends traditional filmmaking altogether. Speed Racer does just that, and with it the Wachowskis have moved themselves into the highest order of working filmmakers. Their film is the natural progression (though it is entirely different) of their Matrix trilogy, and it proves that this team of brothers will be at the cutting edge of not only film as technology, but film as art, for years to come. They are moving the medium forward in ways that must be seen to be believed--and in ways that only a few select filmmakers can, among them Paul Thomas Anderson, Fernando Meirelles, and the Crowned King of All Living Directors, Lord Scorsese.

Unfortunately, that incredible virtuosity--that which makes this film so brilliant--is the precise reason it will be seen as a box office failure. Something so powerfully different just doesn't sit well with traditional movie patrons. Some viewers have and will continue to completely buck against it (and a lot of the critics have, too). Speed Racer is the wildest ride of the year, one that completely challenges conventional notions of live-action cinema from the storytelling to the basic visual structure. It will make some audience members' heads explode.

Whatever one's ultimate reservations are, however, one cannot deny the staggering feat the filmmakers have pulled off. They have successfully made a film in the elusive, prodigious image of Japanese anime; and even more than that, they have made a film that resonates in a more powerful visual way than any film that's ever come before it, and one that resonates just as strongly in the heart.



the WIZARD, fkap said...

J - The reason for Speed Racer's box office failure seems terribly obvious to me. And it is the exact same reason that virtually all movies based upon video games fail.

The producers, directors and writers conpletely missed both the point and more importantly the feel and pacing of the original series.

In an effort to make a simple mindless, plotless series suitable for a 150 million dollar budget, they padded to the concept until none of the fun of the original was left.

Even the score is a disaster if you're trying to recreate the magic of the series.

One of two things needed to happen (in my opinion). Either they needed to make the 150 milloion dollar blockbuster with an all new script, concept and purpose.... or.... they needed to spend a fraction o the money, and let writers who actually worshipped the original make a new japanimation version.

This version lacked every single aspect that made the original series a beloved icon.

I do agree, it will eventually be regarded for the groundbreaking concept it is.... but it was a concept in search of characters, plot, originality and story.

the Wiz...... (a very loyal reader).

P.S. Speaking of movies I'd like you to review.... I'd love to read your thoughts on what I think is perhaps the greatest work to come for Japan's prolific animation studios, Howl's Moving Castle.

J McKiernan said...


I appreciate your comment, even if we do disagree on everything but the film's groundbreaking concept. You say the series was mindless and plotless...I will agree. You say the Wachowskis then "padded the concept until none of the fun of the original was left." I say that they integrated a moving (if slightly overlong) story to provide a human context to an otherwise mindless enterprise, all the while retaining every bit of the original's fun. And for me, a student of anime as I am a student of every other sort of filmmaking, this film was stunning simply by virtue of the fact that it is the first live action film to capture the spirit and the visual intensity of japanese animation. But I suppose restating my entire review won't help you change your mind....

You are onto something about why films based on mindless video games fail--while we disagree on this film (and while this film was not based on a video game), you are right that attempting to pad an otherwise mindless entertainment is a huge challenge. And I think I can be 100% accurate when I say every "video game movie" ever made has...uh, sucked.

Thanks for this response. While you agree with the masses (both the critical masses and the consumer masses), you are providing a lot of insight behind your final judgment. And the mere fact that you are not bucking against the film's visionary concept is enough for me to realize you are coming from a very evolved filmmaking point of view.

Keep the comments coming. I would love to see more of them.

And yes, a "Howl's Moving Castle" review is in the offing...a film crafted by one of the masters I referenced in this "Speed Racer" review: Hayao Miyazaki, the grand master of Japanese animation--and let's be honest, the grand master of animation, period.