In the last nine days, I’ve actually seen the live-action Speed Racer movie twice, once on IMAX , and once on a regular screen. This probably seems rather odd, given how universally the movie has been reviled by critics. I had kind of wanted to see the movie before it came out, just to see how a campy cartoon was adapted to live action, but the lackluster critical review meant nobody really wanted to see it with me.
Then I read this review by Kazu Kibuishi, a comic creator I’m a fan of, and it convinced me to get off my ass and track down a theatre still showing it. As you may have gathered, I am so glad that I did, because it was actually — surprisingly, mind-bogglingly — a really good movie.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a movie for everyone. Visually, it looks like a live-action cartoon — not a mix of actors and animation, but rather a fairly sound extrapolation of what a cartoon would look like if suddenly real. The movie also retains a lot of the campiness and goofy comic relief of the original cartoon, right down to the kid sidekick with a pet chimp.
And that’s about all that most of the negative reviews seem to mention. A few have even gone so far as to say there is no story, or to dismiss it as simplistic, or for little kids only, and it leaves me wondering whether those reviewers saw the same movie that I did.
I, for one, question whether younger kids would actually be able to follow the story — I can see kids easily enjoying the car racing, but the seamlessly fluid incorporation of flashback and flash-forward into the narrative as a means of establishing character motivation and background that so enthralled me might just be confusing to them. Perhaps that was the case for a lot of critics as well.
Now, when I talk about how flashback and flash-forward are incorporated seamlessly, I mean just that — at no point does the narrative ever stop to fill in back-story; rather, it is blended in in real-time, in a way I’ve never seen before. And it works so well . I was utterly captivated by how they used this to tell the story. (The kickin’ 70s-style muscial score by Michale Giacchino also provided boundless enjoyment, incorporating themes from the original cartoon and fitting the mood of the movie perfectly. It’s the first movie score I’ve bought in a long time.)
This being a Wachowski movie, the action sequences are naturally over-the-top, but it works in this context as it also retains an element of goofy charm. They aren’t flawless — some of the action in the final car race isn’t as comprehensible as I’d like — but they provide a lot of intensity and fun.
The last thing I should mention, oddly enough, is the cast. Emile Hirsch plays a solid lead, with John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci providing excellent support. (Christina Ricci looked surprisingly natural as a cartoon character… actually, that’s not so surprising.) The characterization is not necessarily all that complex (is is based off of a cartoon, after all), but they all pull it off well, and nail their characters and relationships. Solid casting all around. There are even a few cameo appearances by Richard Roundtree .
Overall, this was probably one of the most pure movie experiences I’ve ever had — everything worked so well together to pull this movie off, that I can’t even quibble about the the bits that, from an objective point of view, I wouldn’t like *cough*kid brother with chimp*cough*. I was more satisfied coming out of Speed Racer than I have been by a movie in a long time. So, if you think you wouldn’t find the visuals off-putting, and can deal with the campiness and comic relief, I strongly urge you to see this movie. I brought my girlfriend the second time I saw it, and she liked it, so I know I’m not delusional. And I know I’ll be getting the DVD as soon as it’s released.