There are days when I think that Speed Racer just might be the greatest goddamn movie of all time.
Because how else do you even begin to explain its existence? A big-budget blockbuster adapting a cartoon from the sixties that many remember for its sped-up dubbing than anything else, made up largely of overblown CGI and kiddie humor and all the things cinephiles routinely label as the death of cinema as we know it, yet still manages to tell a sweet, honestly emotional story of family, and the lengths we go to achieve our dreams? Seriously: Speed Racer is a miracle of a movie.
Almost universally panned upon initial release and a massive bomb with audiences as well, Speed Racer has thankfully begun to be reappraised as the underappreciated classic that it is. In a way, the movie is the most “traditional” film the Wachowskis have ever made, being a pretty straightforward underdog sports story, but it’s the telling that makes Speed Racer special. The Wachowskis create a thoroughly believable cartoon world, where the traditional cinematic “cut” is largely done away with, replaced by a series of continuous wipes and pans that trace the characters’ faces from one scene to the next in a stunning display of digital photography and editing. Once again, the siblings accept nothing short of pushing the medium of film ever forward. It’s just that this time, they pushed so far ahead, they left everyone else behind, lost in the dust kicked up in their wake.
The original backlash is somewhat understandable, considering that - if you don’t buy into this world from the very first frame - then it’s probably not going to work for you. But look at any of the original reviews from the film’s release, and you’ll see endless accusations of that old “style-over-substance” gripe, which leads me to believe that: A.) Most reviewers in question tuned out during the first few minutes and didn’t give the movie a chance, or B.) They didn’t see the movie at all. Because while Speed Racer is absolutely not short on style, that’s just the frosting layered on the thick cake beneath. One accusation we could level at the Wachowskis thus far is that their films focus too much on the head and the balls--intellectually-stimulating and visually-appealing, but without much in the way of heart. Speed Racer makes up for this by being essentially nothing but heart, as the Wachowskis take an old, barely five-frames-a-minute cartoon and turn it into an incredibly personal story that’s all about keeping true to yourself and where you come from. Looking at what Speed goes through here with Roger Allam’s deliciously slimy Royalton, it’s easy to see why the Wachowskis went on radio silence following the first Matrix’s release.
Because if Speed Racer is about anything, it’s about not forgetting your roots. So often in popular entertainment we’re met with stories of leaving home to wander the wide frontier and find your own place in the world, but that’s not what Speed does here. Speed’s dream is not accomplished by leaving it all behind to go out in the great beyond, but by sticking by his family and all of them working together to achieve greatness. The Racer family rises above their primary-colored wardrobe to become actual, flesh-and-blood human beings, played by possibly the most perfect actors that could be cast. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci never hit a wrong note throughout the whole film, neither playing the roles as Aunt Harriett caricatures or way too serious, but finding the right emotional tones within the framework of the movie. Equally great is Matthew Fox as Racer X, the eldest brother who left the Racer family when Speed was still just a boy to work with law enforcement and take on organized crime in the racing world. Fox gets on the correct wavelength right from the get-go, adopting a monotone, no-nonsense cool that straddles the line between the Adam West Batman and James Bond.
At the center of it all is Emile Hirsch’s Speed, and it’s a tricky part to play. Speed is such an earnest and good-natured character, he could come off as dopey or annoying if pushed too far, but Hirsch never once lets the cartoon world surrounding him overwhelm the character. No matter what colorful antics he finds himself in, Hirsch always finds the emotional truth of the scene, and he remains a strong anchor that holds the film in place and keeps the story solely focused on the emotional stakes. The entire cast acclimates themselves to the world the Wachowskis have carefully built here, and treat it as seriously as they would any other sports drama.
And that world… well, that’s where the Wachowskis have always shined, and they fill their candy-colored screen with details that could spin-off into entirely new stories on their own. This is a place about as far removed from reality as humanly possible, an almost future-setting where the entirety of the world’s society revolves around the sport of automobile racing. It’s not just clutter to fill up the frame: one gets the sense that the Wachowskis have carefully set up an elaborate history that traces how the rather simple sport transformed into a free-for-all where the cars engage in kung fu on tracks that meet at the center of the spectrum from Hot Wheels to Salvador Dali. It is often an overwhelming explosion of color and sound, but one that feels carefully orchestrated from the get-go, instead of a random series of kaleidoscopic splatter.
Of course, all of that would be meaningless without a strong foundation to build upon it, and one could make the argument that this is the most emotionally engaging of all the Wachowskis’ projects. It’s corny and melodramatic and sincere to a fault, but damn if it doesn’t work in the end to become something truly inspiring for anyone who’s ever had a dream. Ultimately, Speed Racer ends with the promise that hard work always pays off, that courage, loyalty and love are all you need and that cheaters always get what’s coming to them. Perhaps a hard lesson to swallow here in the year 2017, but maybe that’s exactly why it’s needed now more than ever.