Saturday, May 31, 2008

Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.

Some of my best memories of childhood are the marathon sessions I spent playing Super Mario Kart in battle mode with my friend Garrison for six-plus hours at a time. Around 3am, fueled by Pepsi and Doritos and with Black Sabbath blowing out our eardrums, Garr and I would reach a state of geek transcendance - almost completely wordless, the clicking noises of our thumbs tapping the controls forming their own conversation as our connection to game became kinesthetic. So when I defend Speed Racer as a kids' movie, I don't mean that as a dismissal - the Wachowski brothers have created a tactile, candy-colored world seemingly taken straight from the unconscious of a Pixie-Stix-addled 9-year-old who could kick my ass on the PS3. Until Dennis and Paul both recommended it I'd been actively avoiding the film, assuming that the Wachowskis would approach the video game aesthetic with the same suffocating self-importance that killed the Matrix sequels. So it was a welcome surprise that the brothers have rediscovered their sense of playfulness, crafting a movie both visually nifty and winningly sincere - finally, a movie for the indoor kids.

A cartoon-within-the-movie serves as a basic primer for those unfamiliar with the anime aesthetic that Speed Racer translates into live-action; the world inhabited by the titular driver and his family is deliberatly flat and two-dimensional, its color palette limited to the 16-crayon box. What looked grating in the trailer is surprisingly good eye candy in the feature, the kaledoscopic racing sequences are the Wachowskis' most successful attempt at the hyperreal since the first Matrix. While my own preference is for the tangible cartoon worlds of Robert Altman's Popeye or Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, Speed Racer shares with those films an admirable fidelity to its own delibarately silly internal logic (aided immensely by another infectiously zippy Michael Giacchino score). The movie must average fifty edits a minute, but the Wachowskis never sacrifice coherence as far too many action filmmakers happily do - the primary aim here is momentum, and though the result is occasionally wearisome, it's also thrilling in its peculiar way.

Speed Racer is particularly notable in how well the flesh-and-blood performers are integrated into the computer-generated world. While otherwise talented actors working with digital sets often end up looking vaguely confused, the performances here find the right tone - tongue-in-cheek but not condescending, exaggerated but not obnoxious. Emile Hirsch smartly plays Speed Racer as a stoic, wide-eyed youngster single-mindedly obsessed, like Ricky Bobby, with going fast. Standouts in the rest of the cast include John Goodman as Pops, who smartly lets his mustache do the acting; Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X, who between this and Lost makes me wonder what makes him so great at playing complete dicks; and Christina Ricci, cute as a button as Speed's devoted girlfriend Trixie. And mention must be made of Paulie Litt as Speed's chubby, sugar-fuelled little brother Spritle, a character that could have easily made the film unwatchably obnoxious had the Wachowskis not found such a likable kid - Litt, who looks like a young Peter Boyle, is clearly just having fun being in a movie, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

And fun is the key reason to see a Speed Racer movie - despite its surprisingly subversive anti-capitalist message and sophisticated narrative structure, this is essentially a movie for 6-year-olds. So it's refreshing to see that the Wachowskis have rediscovered their ability to entertain on a grand scale; I wouldn't be surprised if, once kids discover this on video, it means as much to them as The Goonies or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory do to people who saw them at precisely the right age. A confession: last year I had the chance to audition for Speed but opted not to, not only because the idea of me as Speed Racer is completely ridiculous but because, from the script pages they gave me for the casting call, I thought the film would be a dull, leaden failure. It turns out the Wachowskis knew exactly what they were doing; Speed Racer isn't a perfect movie by any means, but once people catch up to it, it's going to defy a lot of expectations.

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