The UnPopular Opinion: Speed Racer

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

I’m going to go out on an extreme limb here and say that SPEED RACER is near-perfect.  Not in the sense that it is a seminal piece of filmmaking of unquestionable quality, or in the sense that it is utterly without flaws.  No, when I say near-perfect I mean that insofar as action/adventure/family films go – i.e. for what it is – it is nearly unmatched in my experience. 

I have found that many movies make the excuse “it’s just supposed to be fun, don’t think about it too much” in order to hide issues such as bland characters, unmotivated plots, boring camera work, and disconnected screenwriting.  But I have also always been convinced that it is possible for a popcorn flick to have all of those things in the positive and still be a thrillingly fun visual/action ride.  You can have a well-constructed movie that still makes jaws drop in awe and a room fill with giddy laughter, and that is exactly what SPEED RACER is.  And now that I’ve experienced it, by God I don’t know how I can go back.

Speed Racer #1
“Ok, Mr. two-time-Grand-Prix five-time-WRL future-Hall-of-Fame, teach me something!”

Fundamentally, what marks the difference in my mind between SPEED RACER and most other movies is that it superdly illustrates the ultimate childlike experience.  Not childISH, childLIKE.  ChildISH is acting with the impulses of a child, selfishly immature and unguided by care or concern for others.  But childLIKE is a description which references someone or something being filled with the freedom, joy, abandon, wonder, and burning desire for discovery that so often drives children.  And SPEED RACER is full of that childLIKE wonder from the first frame all the way through and past the last.  The frenetic energy, the swift transitions, the blindingly rich colors that paint SPEED RACER’s world – these are all the hallmarks of the lens through which children experience their lives.

The Wachowskis, in a very ballsy move indeed, chose to completely indunate every single frame, plot/character beat, and action moment in a wash of wondrous joy and enthusiasm.  They didn’t pull a single punch in this decision, and unlike so many of the past movies I’ve reviewed for this column SPEED RACER knows exactly what it is.  This is a fantasy, an adventure of the purest sort, painted so much broader than life and with a willingness to abandon any sense of our reality and allow it to be replaced by a complete sense of SPEED RACER’s reality.  Never once do the Wachowski’s try to force their tale to be told in a language that would be innapropriate in this context, never do they allow it to drift into melodrama or into a place of serious Earth-like reality.  They stay firm in the tone and identity they’ve chosen, and for that alone I think they deserve a fair amount of commendation.

Speed Racer #3
“Move it, Speed! It’s getting ugly out there!”

Except that’s not even all, not by a long shot.  Also very deserving of commendation for 1) the skill of its excecution, 2) the effectiveness of its presence, and 3) the storytelling enhancement it brings is the constant state of motion that exists in SPEED RACER.  It can generally be noticed that when the camera is still the people/cars are moving, and when the camera is moving the people/cars are either still or moving with it.  The point is, something about SPEED RACER’s world is always in motion, which works well and makes good sense considering that this is a wondrous fantasy adventure called SPEED RACER.

And not only is there movement present in this technicolor tale, but the movement itself is consistently made interesting and inventive and just plain exciting to watch.  Everything in this movie that moves, moves in a fashion which is out of the ordinary.  Whether it be in terms of the speed at which the movement occurs or the path of travel (lots of swoops and curves) – it all constantly catches the audience’s eye and draws us into the tale.  This actually worked to expand the world for me, generating a kind of depth due to how everything was always traveling.  I continuously found myself leaning forward in my seat – I can’t quite explain why, I just know it’s a very good thing indeed.  You can always tell if someone is really gripped by something if they’ve leaned their body/energy/attention closer to whatever they’re watching, hence the phrase “on the edge of my seat.”  Which I was, for over two hours.   

Speed Racer #5
“Every one of us has to find a reason to do this. You don’t climb into a T-180 to be a driver. You do it because you’re driven.”

Speaking of over two hours, it would be fair to say that SPEED RACER could stand to lose a bit of its runtime.  As much as I may have enjoyed myself, THE GREAT ESCAPE this is not.  Some of the races would have fared just as well with a few of the fancy car tricks taken out and some of the tracks shortened, but that’s just it.  The only sorts of cutting suggestions you’ll ever hear me make have to do with trimming small bits here and there which would add up over time.  Nothing drags too egregiously, and there is something about every single scene which is important for one reason or another.

And yes, complaints might be (and have been) raised as to the plotting of the movie being too simple for adults and too complicated for kids.  Which perhaps is arguably the one way in which the Wachowskis overreached – SPEED RACER’s storyline isn’t a whole lot more than a vehicle (if you’ll pardon the pun) for us to encounter these characters and experience the wonder I continue to mention.  And see some really (really) awesome races.  This by the way, is coming from someone who normally doesn’t find car racing particularly interesting. But boy was it awesome here!

Speed Racer #4
“You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn’t work like that!”
“Maybe not, but it’s the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something.”

I’ve gone on at length about the style and the tone of SPEED RACER, because they’re the two most obvious elements that allow such a potentially outlandish tale to work in live-action.  But to say that they are the only two elements would discount the pitch-perfect acting turns from just about everyone involved, be it Emile Hirsch’s determined innocence, the charmingly grim demeanor of Matthew Fox, or the strong and loving presence of John Goodman.  It would discount the fantastic score from Michael Giacchino, one which knows just when to underscore a moment or lift our hearts into our throats.  And it would discount the skillful way in which the Wachowskis are able to introduce character decisions and storytelling moments that really matter.  There are some really solid messages to be found here, served up in such a way so as to sidestep prosthelytizing or pandering and skip straight to being inspiringly affective.

But at the end of the day, SPEED RACER’s greatest accomplishment can be summed up with this: somehow, the Wachowskis managed to tap into the secret dream of the child buried deep in every one of us, one that is normally only fed on the scraps of our half-remembered hopes.  I’ve never seen a movie so bursting with life, energy, or the boundless sense of play that directs the excited explorations of so many children. 

Or perhaps it would be better to use a line from the movie itself to explain what I mean: during the Casa Christo race, one of the announcers watching Speed race can’t help but exclaim “I know he blew up at Fuji, but this kid is flat out magic!” Which is exactly how I felt watching SPEED RACER.  I know the Wachowski’s blew up with the second two Matrix movies, but THIS movie is flat out magic!

Speed Racer #6
“I saw my son become a man. I watched a man with courage and integrity drive the pants off of every other driver on that road. This is not meaningless. This is the reason for a father’s life.”


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