Expectations need to downshift when trying to assess this first film directed by the Wachowski Brothers since their groundbreaking Matrix trilogy (1999-2003). Obviously, this adaptation of the 1960s cult-fave anime series about a teenage racecar driver and his family and adventures isn't another metaphysical journey to the center of the mind, but neither is it a paean to those after-school afternoons spent by the last straggling baby-boomers, who were maybe nine when “Speed Racer” began playing in syndication. This is a kids' movie. For really young kids. For really young kids who can sit still for two hours, figuring the last 10 or 15 minutes of this 135-minute opus is mostly end-credits.
A triumph of set design over story or characterization, the visual extravaganza that is Speed Racer is both cutting-edge on movie screens and retro on videogame screens; it resembles nothing so much as the 1992 arcade game Virtua Racing. Cars careen and carom off walls and one another on physics-defying tracks that make the racing scenes look like they take place inside a Hot Wheels pinball machine. Granted, the source material isn't at all naturalistic—even we kids knew that racecars don't carry weapons and that the number of explosive fatalities per race made each event seem like the Russian Roulette Rally—and writer-director-producers Andy and Larry Wachowski clearly created a self-contained world with its own logic, technology, clothing and color scheme. It's all a bombastic mishmash that makes you feel like you've been stuffed inside a kaleidoscope and shaken for two hours.
That's less interesting than it sounds, and the young kids in a preview audience seemed bored and restless for the first half of the film before perking up for the climactic race. That would be the World Racing League Grand Prix, an invitation-only affair controlled by the big motor-sports moguls, particularly the manipulative Royalton (Roger Allam). Living in the kind of world-of-tomorrow Xanadu you'd get if Charles Foster Kane were in Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, he offers young racing phenom Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) a spot on his racing team—or else. As Royalton explains it in a motor-mouthed speech, the Grand Prix has always been fixed and it involves the following stock-market manipulation and corporate intrigue: blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. When a kids' movie needs Alan Greenspan to decipher a major plot point, that's not good.
Before the Grand Prix, however, Speed, his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), and his family (John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Paulie Litt) and mechanic (Kick Gurry) must team with racer Taejo Togokahn (Korean pop singer Rain) in the two-continent Casa Cristo 5000 rally. This somehow or other will help Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) of the Interpol-like C.I.B. and his mysterious top agent, Racer X (a dead-on Matthew Fox), bring down Royalton and his henchmen, who look like Dick Tracy's rogue gallery performing Guys and Dolls.
That look, in fact, speaks to an essential unoriginality here. From the videogame visuals to the retro-gangster attire, Speed Racer takes all the kiddie-pop imagery in the Wachowskis’ collective memory and spews it out in a kandy-kolored, tangerine-flake streamlined way that's surely near-and-dear to their hearts and vision. For anyone over six years old, that vision plays like “Days of Thunder: The Animated Series.”
Peter Fernandez, who wrote and produced the 52-episode U.S. version of "Speed Racer" (a redubbing of the Japanese series "Mach GoGoGo") and voiced Speed and other characters, plays a racing announcer.