May 8, 2008

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Speed Racer (PG)
Speed Racer, son of the race-car-building Racer family, dreams of zooming his way to victory in Speed Racer, the candy-colored kid-sort-of-friendly action movie from Andy and Larry Wachowski.

Young Speed (Nicholas Elia) grows up enamored of going fast in fast cars and adoring of his car-racing big brother Rex (Scott Porter). Rex hangs the moon for Speed and for Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops Racer (John Goodman), until thereís some kind of trouble, Rex leaves and then tragedy strikes.

Years later, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is now the big brother racing to bring glory to the family name and Spritle (Paulie Litt) is the adoring little brother. Speed has a real chance to win the grand prix, a chance that gets even better when corporate dynamo Royalton (Roger Allam) offers Speed a chance to race on the Royalton Team. But Speed says he wants to stay with Team Racer, be an independent. Royalton tells Speed heís a naÔve chump and that racing isnít about sport, itís a rigged extravaganza to help manipulate stock prices and make a few rich men richer. Speed tells him he doesnít believe him. Fine, says Royalton, Iíll destroy you.

True to his word, Royalton gets baddie racers to keep Speed from finishing the next race and then sets to work besmirching the Racer family name. Speed is determined not to let Royalton and his corporate ilk sully the good name of car racing (or something) and with help from his sweetheart Trixie (Christina Ricci) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), he attempts to thwart the schemes of ninjas, small-time criminals and corporate-hired thugs to control the outcome of the grand prix.

Visually, Speed Racer is electric ó specifically, electric reds and blues, neon yellows and other screaming-crazy colors that seem to have as much to say as the characters do. Eye-popping use of color shapes every scene and grabs your attention, from the swirl of lines on a racetrack to the flash of red when lightning briefly illuminates a rose bush. The sets, costumes and cityscapes all seem to have been designed to match the color schemes of Hot Wheels cars and gummy bears. There is a weird, circus beauty to the look of the film ó a primary color version of the purposeful pastel overload in Marie Antoinette (another movie that played with color to give the story a fantasy element ó though compared to Speed Racer, Marie Antoinette is in sepia tone). Itís a cartoon constructed with three-dimensional (or at least three-dimensional-looking) parts.

Though they might occasionally make you dizzy, the wonderfully loony roller-coaster-ride-style images of Speed Racer saturate the film and provide more than enough visual material for its two-plus hours. The story, however, is spread rather thin ó about 45 minutes too thin for me (and Iíll bet the squirmy kids who chatted, squealed and jumped out of their seats in the theater where I saw the movie thought it could have been even). A race that seems to go on forever is really only a qualifying round in the journey to the big tournament. Far too many scenes involve characters tangled up in angsty, wordy conversation, some of which become quite repetitive. The subplot about the evil plans of corporations versus the honest intentions of plucky individuals gives us a reason to dislike the villain Royalton (though Iíll be you could have edited all that down to ďbecause heís the bad guyĒ) but itís otherwise kind of stupid (yes, God forbid car racing become overly concerned with money) and certainly unnecessary to the real selling points in this movie ó namely the spectacular visuals and a Looney Tunes-style sense of humor that is regularly augmented by the presence of Spritleís chimpanzee. And though the chimp probably wonít get the Academy Awards rulemakers to consider a Best Animal in a Supporting Role category, he wasnít so much different from his human costars. This is not a movie about acting chops, this is a movie about looking convincing in your costume and trying to frown at the right points during your line delivery.

The monkey doesnít quite save the day for this movie, but he is a welcome addition to this woozy ride. The movie is at its best when itís giving us goofiness and when Speed is zooming through fantastical landscapes that seem to allow every movie screen to inspire IMAX-like awe. Speed Racer is not a movie for younger kids (anyone under 7 or 8 will probably require constant chasing around the cineplex as they look for something to do during the umpteenth heart-to-heart talk) nor is it one for the easily nauseated or those requiring plots that make sense and develop at a quick pace. But, if you have the stomach and the patience to sit through some of the lulls, the loopty-loops of action and color will reward you with a candy store of sugar-buzz-inducing fun. B-

Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking. Written and directed by Larry Wachowski (from the series by Tatsuo Yoshida), Speed Racer is two hours and 16 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, May 9. The movie is distributed by Warner Brothers.