He’s jamming down the pedal like he’s never coming back.

Took my son Sam (7), daughter Kit (5) and Guest Child X to see Speed Racer this afternoon.

The headline: Matthew Fox crushes as Racer X.hitcounter The Editor (from yesterday’s post) is correct — he is by far the most interesting character in the Speed Racer universe, and Fox’s performance perfectly captures him. FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT PORTRAYALS OF MYSTERIOUS ANIME RACECAR DRIVERS.

Sam and Guest Child X loved it — they raced down to the front row of the (empty) theater and danced during the end credits. Kit also said she loved it, but she actually came down with a fever during the movie, a medical event unrelated to anything on screen, and during the end credits asked repeatedly “can we go now?”

Speed Racer seems to have audiences sharply divided — at least the audiences who have sought it out. The majority seem to find it a headache-inducing nightmare, but there is a vocal minority who find it a generation-defining experience, an either you-get-it-or-you-don’t line in the day-glo orange sand. I find myself somewhere in the middle — I think it’s a hugely sophisticated piece of cinematic art, but I would also say that it has some significant problems — problems that apparently did not register with Sam, who, upon coming home from the movie, swept his Star Wars toys aside and got out his long-ignored box of little racecars (including a tiny Mach 5 from his younger, more innocent days) and staged a tiny cross-country rally in our TV room, complete with multiple environments and death-defying jumps.

The universe of the movie, the production design, the crazy logic of the sets, the music, the editing, the colors, the tone of the performances, I think all that is quite impressive, but it didn’t seem particularly revolutionary or generation-defining to me. I had my “Oh-my-God-what-we-can-do-with-computers” moment while watching Sin City, so Speed Racer didn’t awe me in that way. If anything, the look of Speed Racer kept reminding me of The Phantom Menace — another movie where, no matter what else you want to say about it, looks astonishing — and then I found out at the end that they have the same director of photography. As in The Phantom Menace, there’s always something extraordinary happening on screen, but not always with the dramatic impact intended. It may be my age showing, but the racing sequences in Speed Racer strike me very much like the pod race in The Phantom Menace — both are hugely sophisticated in their design and execution, but lack dramatic momentum. They are wild and weird and loco and in many ways stunning in their originality, but I found myself wanting to care more.

I had to leave the theater four times during the movie to fetch popcorn and drinks and to escort children to the restroom, so I won’t pretend to present a coherent analysis of the movie at this time. One thing I did notice, however, was a narrative that was both willfully simplistic and, to my ear, unnecessarily complicated. The world is both utterly, deliriously cartoonish and then surprisingly hard-headed and realistic (another reason it kept reminding me of The Phantom Menace). The gonzo racing sequences and slapstick kiddie antics will pause for long, involved discussions of contracts and sponsorships and automotive-part promotions and stock deals and corporate intrigue. The odd thing is, I kind of remember this kind of thing from the show as well, watching them when my kids were 4 and 3 and wondering then, too, if the stories were too sophisticated for them to understand.

(UPDATE: an hour’s worth of research has confirmed my suspicions: the narrative of Speed Racer is remarkably true to its roots — for good and bad.  Auto-part production, corporate intrigue and shady deals are endemic to the material — you just never remember any of that from when you’re a kid.  And it’s not presented with the exhaustive detail it’s given in the feature.)

On the other hand, I don’t really care if a story is too sophisticated for my kids, only if it’s too boring. My question is, if you live in a universe where racetracks turn upside down and run through ice caves, where characters live with chimpanzees, anonymous racers scour the roads dealing with gangsters, racecars fly and flip and sprout circular saws and villainous racecars launch beehives at their competitors, why make the bad guy plot so plausible and complex? I sat through Act II of Speed Racer watching through my charges’ eyes, trying to find the kernel of the action that would explain things on a level they could understand. Finally the movie got to it — The bad guy wants to win so badly that he cheats.  That’s the bad-guy plot in one sentence, but the movie says it in a dozen scenes of back-room dealings, explanations of racing administration history and under-the-table negotiations. It was a rare instance where I wanted the movie to be a little simpler.


10 Responses to “He’s jamming down the pedal like he’s never coming back.”
  1. curt_holman says:

    “Kit also said she loved it, but she actually came down with a fever during the movie, a medical event unrelated to anything on screen,”

    You sure it wasn’t directly related to the experience of seeing ‘Speed Racer?’ I certainly felt like I had a fever while watching it.

    I much prefer the pod race in Phantom Menace to any of Speed Racer’s action scenes. In the pod race, I understood the rules, could tell where things were in relation to each other and felt like the CGI objects had weight and substance.

    • Todd says:

      Comparing the two, yes, I’d say the pod race is better — but I’m comparing both to Ben-Hur and The French Connection — which I should probably just go ahead and stop doing for the rest of my life if I ever want to be happy.

  2. I saw this a few days ago and while I’m over 40 and didn’t bring any kids with me, I still enjoyed the film a lot. I’d go far to say that the biggest reason I liked the movie so much is because it may be the best adapted cartoon-to-live action film yet. (though that could be damning with faint praise).

    I agree that the reasons behind the villains actions are a bit over complicated, but you nailed it with the “bad guy wants to win so badly that he cheats” answer. That’s another reason I liked this film, it delivers a good message for a successful family film, without getting boringly insipid.

    Here’s what I thought: http://www.thebaboonbellows.com/?p=1810

  3. moroccomole says:

    and I are disagreeing on this one — he had a blast, while I was in agony.

    WHAT DOES THIS AUDIENCE MEMBER WANT? An aspirin and a cold compress on the eyes.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “One thing I did notice, however, was a narrative that was both willfully simplistic and, to my ear, unnecessarily complicated. “

    *Thank you*. Exactly. I’ll be totally honest — I didn’t follow all of the stock price drama and corporate shenanigans as it was happening. A scene or two later, and it wouldn’t matter — I’d get what the end result of all that business was (betrayal!), but still, why is it there?

    (Actually, I do know why it’s there — it has to do with what every Wachowski brother movie is about, which I mention in my review here: http://www.comixology.com/articles/59/He-Aint-Heavy-Hes-Racer-X
    But they really should’ve found a way to simplify the narrative and make it sleek as possible.)

    Matthew Fox is great, except for the one moment at the end when he does his “Pained Jack” expression, which made me laugh inappropriately.

    — Kent M. Beeson

    • Todd says:

      For me, the crowning achievement of Fox’s performance is that I didn’t think of Jack once during the movie. His performance is so strong that I will now watch Lost and think “Hey look, Racer X is stuck on some kind of weird island.”

      There is nothing wrong with Speed Racer anti-corporate message, but I feel like it could have been dramatized more simply and still gotten its point across without having to drag us through the history of competitive team racing and show us how seeming competitors mutually benefit from shady stock deals — none of that belongs in this world.

      • Anonymous says:

        Just to be clear (in case it wasn’t), I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with it, just that… they should’ve found a way to bring a kid’s movie sensibility to their thematic obsessions rather than force them into a kid’s movie. Or in other words, exactly what you just said.

        Also: Fox looks like he’s having fun here, which helps tremendously. I bet he enjoyed being a martial arts hero for a day.

        Also also: what I’ve been telling everyone is that — and I believe this 100% — there would be hardly any complaints about the visual style if the story had been more solid; if they’d found a way to untangle these little knots of plot (plotknots?) that get in the way of a fairly straightforward idea. Remember “The Matrix”? That was awesome.

        — Kent M. Beeson

        • Todd says:

          Having just watched the Indiana Jones movies, I kept thinking during Speed Racer “Now how come the Indiana Jones movies have a sweep, a momentum and a drama that this does not?”

          The answer: plot is hard.

  5. greyaenigma says:

    Not on topic, but I was just shown The Character Design blog, and thought you might be interested.

  6. yetra says:

    I just saw this, going in with a prepared mindset, and had a total blast, as did my sweetie who was a big Speed Racer fan growing up. Not the best “film” but as a visual experience and from an enjoyment level, I was very much put in a giddy state by it.

    In addition to agreeing with you that the corporate stock intrigue could have been made much simpler, I think another major improvement would have been casting Tim Curry as Royalton. Missed opportunity there. He would have been perfect, and it would have been a delight to watch him and Susan Sarandon interact again.