Speed Racer (2008)

If ever the phrase “eye candy” was appropriate, this would be the movie to apply it to. This is a cotton candy, lollypop version of a cartoon, that assaults you with color and and motion. There are visual gags in every frame and it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the images. If you have seen those notifications about flashing lights and rapid images before some streaming show or movie, none of them compare with the bombardment that you will experience here. 

When this movie arrived in theaters in May of 2008, it should have been a big hit. It came from the Wachowski Brothers, who had made the visually stunning “The Matrix” just a decade before, and it featured state of the art photography with special cameras to create clear images at multiple depths in the frame. There is an innovative style that is clever and very funny, and the film is based on a well known anime that spans decades of fans from the 1960s up to the Cartoon Network of the day. Instead, it tanked at the box office and was critically dismissed as being incoherent and headache inducing. 

The film has however been embraced by the gamers, anime fanboys and computer nerds of the world. It seems to have gained cult status and I would say that it’s original style and sense of humor was misunderstood and it has become clear that people are catching on.  The camera is in constant motion in the races, which look like they are filmed as a video game with real people in the place of gaming avatars. The cartoon nature of the film is exaggerated as the colors pop off the screen and the acting of the characters gets more and more outrageous. In addition to the racing sequences, there are fight scenes that feature kung fu, WWF style wrestling and machine guns. Oh Yea, there is a kid with a chimp as a companion, inserting himself in situations that are comic book ridiculous and also a lot of fun. 

The look of the movie could be seen as an evolutionary step in film design. With computers, the early special effects of “Tron” and “The Last Starfighter” have given way to something much more complicated and reflective of imagination rather than replicating real world environments. The color palate of the film feels like a step taken from Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy, with singular colors contrasted with darker or more complex backgrounds. 

The costumes accentuate those contrasts and make the characters stand out. Also, the images of the characters, especially the villain, scroll across other scenes as they speak, suggesting constant activity, there is rarely a static moment in the film. The layering of scenes on top of one another makes the artifice even more noticeable. Of course gravity, physics and common sense are not part of the movie, it is a cartoon presented as live action, and it looks cartoony. 

There are a bucketload of familiar faces in the film, John Goodman, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, and Hirouki Sanada, who I just saw in John Wick 4 and Bullet Train in the last year. Emile Hirsh stars as Speed and he has the right look and a little bit of charm to carry it off. In the late 2010s he was the next big thing. He still works and is in several movies I have blogged about, but he is not as prominent as he once was. Maybe this film’s failure to launch cooled off his career a bit. That would be too bad because he was the right fit and the movie deserves to be re-evaluated. 

We went to see this at an Alamo Drafthouse screening, and it would be easy to tell who the audience was that made this film a cult object of affection. Sorry for the stereotypes, but if you get an image in your head of gamers and anime fans, in their 30s, that is probably accurate. Our screening was packed, and 80% of those in attendance looked like they had just put down their controllers and Mountain Dew, for a few minutes to enjoy this film. Everyone was laughing and clapping at the film, we all had a wonderfull time, the eye strain was completely worth it. 

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