Throughout the entire 135-minute running time of "Speed Racer", I sat with a baffled look on my face. This film is clearly the most bizarre big-budget picture I've seen in my life - I didn't like it, but I suppose I was still glad I saw it just to take in what I have to call a "unique" cinematic experience. The picture (based upon the Japanese anime series from the '60's, which is beloved by many) is directed by the Wachowski Brothers, who take the helm of a film for the first time since their "Matrix" trilogy.
The film focuses on Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), who lives with his Mom (Susan Sarandon), Pops (John Goodman), little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), pet chimp Chim-Chim (Kenzie and Willy). Also apparently living with him are the family mechanic (Kick Gurry) and Speed's gal-pal Trixie (Christina Ricci). Speed has always wanted to join the family racing business ever since brother Rex Racer was a famed racer. Rex's race record still stands, but unfortunately, Rex didn't make it to the finish in a brutal rally race.
As a young adult, Speed has become a successful racer, but continues to let his brother's record stand. As he finds continued success in the World Racing League, Speed gets a major offer for sponsorship from tycoon Royalton (Roger Allam), who - as Speed finds out - doesn't like "no" for an answer. When Speed decides to stay managed by his father, Royalton does everything he can to make life difficult for Speed and friends. Meanwhile, there's a great deal of underworld crime involvement with the WRL, and it's up to Speed and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) to try to put a stop to it.
That's the long and short of the thin plot, and much of the running time is filled out with races that are free of all but a little bit of dialogue here-and-there. 135 minutes is an astonishing running time for a film like this, which could have easily fit into around 90-100 minutes by dropping some of the considerable filler.
I haven't yet mentioned the look of the movie yet, which resembles a giant videogame. The actors were filmed against blue/green screens, similar to films with digitally created worlds like "Spy Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and the "Star Wars" prequels. However, the film's dizzying array of flashing lights and unbelievably bright neon colors gets exhausting to watch, especially over the course of a movie that runs over two hours.
The style is also a issue, as the Wachowskis seemed to want to make a high-tech movie with touches of low-tech style, and the results are at times just strange (not to mention mildly cheesy, although I'm not sure if that was part of the plan?), such as the neighborhood where Speed and his family live, which looks like something out of an older Nintendo game. On the other hand, the races look like they're going around the ramps of some kind of giant psychedlic pinball game.
There are other visual issues, as well, including the odd choice to have some characters talking be used as wipes at times throughout the movie. It's distracting, to say the least, and takes away from whatever's going on in the scene. There are neat moments where the cars jump and flip to knock each other out of the way, but I thought these were nifty from a technical standpoint only, as the action sequences didn't have me rooting for the thin characters.
As much as the visual style seems to be a mixture of ideas that didn't quite gel, the tone of the movie also doesn't seem to have been clearly thought-out, either. While the picture is a PG film and does have a little bit of language and a good deal of action, there's also a good deal of slapstick. The little brother and the monkey serve no real purpose in the movie, there seemingly only to appeal to the younger members of the audience, who almost certainly have never seen the original cartoon. While some family features can manage to appeal to both adults and children, this one doesn't seem to know how to balance playing to both audiences. The performances are fine enough (especially Hirsch and Ricci), and do more that one might expect, given the limited character development and fairly limited (and corny, although again, I'm guessing that may have been by intent) dialogue.
Overall, I can't say I thought "Speed Racer" was good, nor can I say it was particularly bad, either. However, I will have to say one has to see it to believe it. The film is an incredibly "different" and oddball experience, looking like a very expensive (well north of $100M) watchable-only video game at times and generally offering an uneven mixture of action and stretches of downright goofiness for over two hours. In a way, I guess one can look at this as a modern day "Tron", but - despite its minor budget and primitive effects - "Tron" still remains an entertaining classic.
VIDEO: "Speed Racer" is presented by Warner Brothers in 2.40:1 (1080p/VC-1) on Blu-Ray. The results are utterly astonishing, and while opinions on the film are quite understandably mixed, this is definitely in the running for those who are seeking a title to demo the format to others. Sharpness and detail are extraordinary - the picture retained a crispness and clarity throughout the show that was astonishing. Fine details were seen with pinpoint clarity in many scenes, too.
Although a few slight instances of noise were spotted, the picture was otherwise crystal clear, with no edge enhancement, print flaws or other concerns. The over-the-top (and then some) color palette was reproduced splendidly here, with the incredibly bold colors presented with superb saturation and no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: Unfortunately, the film has not been offered on Blu-Ray with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 presentation. Instead, the Blu-Ray offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. The film's sound design is fantastic, as the surrounds are used aggressively to throw the viewer into the middle of the races, with the cars zooming around and through the listening space. The rear speakers also get plenty of use for reinforcement of the score, additional effects and more.
EXTRAS: "Sprittle in the Big Leagues" (set tour with actor Paulie Litt), "Speed Racer: Supercharged" (an exploration of the film's racers, cars and tracks) and "Speed Racer: Car-Fu Cinema" (a look at the making of the film - primarily, the visual effects work.) Also included are an extra disc that offers the "Speed Racer: Crucible Challenge" game, as well an additional disc that holds a digital copy of the movie.
Final Thoughts: I'm still getting over watching "Speed Racer" - not from it necessarily being good or bad, but more from a sheer "What was that?" experience. Clearly the Wachowski Brothers had free reign on the picture, and results are a hyperactive, neon-colored and big-budgeted jumble. The Blu-Ray offers reference quality video and very good audio quality, along with a few extras. Those interested should rent first.
The Film C-