Any little boys who grew up with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars like I did probably played with them in three different ways. You could hurtle them across the kitchen floor like a game of marbles, crashing them in your own demolition derby. You could push them along all manner of terrain—across the floor, up the cabinets, under the toaster, down Mom's back, over the dog—while ignoring all laws of physics (hey, I was only 6). Or you'd buy one of those fantastic plastic race tracks that allowed you to configure loops for your car to build momentum before jumping the volcano and narrowly miss being eaten by the lava shark (it's all about the jump, not the realism).

Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer

Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer

All child's play, of course, and exactly the tone that the Wachowski Brothers seem to be going for in Speed Racer, their first movie since the glory and disappointment of The Matrix trilogy (though their influence as producers was deeply felt in V for Vendetta). Speed Racer is also intended to be their first family-friendly project in their spotty career, though it's more the sort of campy adaptation that only diehard fans can love.

And by fans, I'm not talking about Gen X-ers with fond memories of the stylish cartoon from the late '60s, self included. This movie is more for the 30-somethings who still live in their parents' basement and to this day revere Speed Racer's origins as Japanese manga and anime. Based on the cult classic, Speed Racer is best appreciated for its replication of style, since the story is thin enough to see through.

Christina Ricci as Trixie

Christina Ricci as Trixie

Our hero's real name is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch of Into the Wild)—he's a member of the Racer family, an actual family of racers headed by Mom and Pops Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman). As his name implies, Speed loves racing and has a natural talent for it. This point is driven home immediately before the opening race, flashing back to Speed's childhood, where he's unable to concentrate on anything but racing.

Speed's undeniable talents are noticed by a wealthy magnate named Royalton (Roger Allam), who offers Speed an incredible contract to race for him exclusively. Speed refuses, which enrages Royalton, who vows to bury the Racer family business on the racetrack and behind-the-scenes. Speed plans to save the day by, what else, racing. Helping him out are his cute girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his mischievous little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) with his pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox)—who may or may not be Speed's older brother Rex, presumed dead—and of course, Speed's amazing Mach 5, a flashy white corvette tricked out with the same assorted gadgets found in James Bond's cars.

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Roger Allam as Royalton, Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer, and John Goodman as Pops Racer

Roger Allam as Royalton, Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer, and John Goodman as Pops Racer

That's really all there is to know, but the Wachowskis go to great lengths to pack this movie with needless backstory and details. Watching Speed Racer reminded me of how I felt sitting through The Matrix Reloaded—I mostly just wanted to see some mind-blowing sci-fi kung-fu, but instead we sat through a lot of long-winded drivel from the Oracle and the Architect.

I knew this movie was in trouble as soon as Royalton starts discussing pancake recipes with Mom Racer (you only wish I'm kidding). In Speed Racer, the opening race is constantly interrupted with each character reminiscing on Speed's past; isn't anyone focused on the race at hand? Unfortunately, the next race doesn't come until almost an hour later, when an angry Royalton gives Speed a history of racing that goes on (and on and on … ). Come on. Is it too much to ask for more RACING in Speed RACER?

There is more racing in the second half, but the restless Wachowskis rarely focus on the high-speed acrobatics or the key details—like who's in the lead—so it's near impossible to invest too much interest in the film's action. The final race itself is impossible to follow in the home stretch—all flash, little substance.

The racers defy gravity, the laws of physics, and, apparently, fire

The racers defy gravity, the laws of physics, and, apparently, fire

The filmmakers also ignore all laws of physics in the races, killing much of the suspense. To be fair, the cartoon wasn't exactly going for realism with a car that can leap through the air like a pogo stick. But here the cars don't merely run each other off the road—they engage in some ridiculous form of kung-fu fighting for automobiles that only hints at gravity and inertia. Said differently, Speed Racer plays like a less believable version of the pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

It doesn't help that the movie looks so obviously fake. The intent was obviously to make a live action Japanese anime with a deliberately "hyper-stylized" environment, mixing '60s styled homes reminiscent of The Brady Bunch with futuristic cities and winding racetracks. Fantasies like the Star Wars prequels or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow successfully transported us to other worlds, whereas Speed Racer looks purposefully artificial. To believe that the actors are actually interacting with their environment is to believe that your TV weatherman has gigantic arms that literally sweep the weather across the country.

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Nevertheless, the visuals are the best thing going for this movie. Fake as it is, the effects are rarely boring. Even during the talky moments, the directors attempt to enthrall us with nifty transitions and layer effects, all reminiscent of Ang Lee's innovative use of comic panels in his version of the Hulk, Warren Beatty's colorful interpretation of Dick Tracy, and Robert Rodriguez's extremely stylish Sin City.

Aside from the fanatical diehards, Speed Racer really isn't intended for adults. The story's overly simplistic, with dialogue that borders on self-parody; let's just say you could make quite a game out of how many times Speed is described as gifted or amazing. Most of the acting is plain silly, often bordering on camp. Hirsh and Ricci are strictly two-dimensional as the leads, but Fox and Goodman at least recreate their cartoon personas admirably. It's the side characters that are beyond over the top, most notably the rival drivers and an endless parade of irritating announcers that pan across the screen during races.

Does Speed Racer live up to the family-friendly entertainment the Wachowskis were aiming for? I have a hard time believing kids will enjoy sitting through such a long and talky movie that runs its races in fits and starts. Though the story is simple enough for children, it's overly complicated by underdeveloped characters, unnecessary details, and meaningless jargon that makes Star Trek sound sensible. Hey, if I can't keep up with parts of it, will the average kid be able to?

This is an ambitious film with some clever visual ideas, but very little of it works together. It might have worked better as a completely animated film. As it stands, Speed Racer is a flashy mess that proves some things are better left to nostalgia than adaptation.

>Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Speed is seen at early age dreaming big about racing. Is it wrong to daydream? Is it okay to slide in your studies if you're uniquely skilled in something else (like racing, or another sport, or music)? Why or why not?
  2. Why does Speed turn down Royalton's offer, keeping in mind that he didn't know Royalton was evil at that time? Is he afraid that money will spoil or corrupt him? Is there something to be said for the pure joy of racing? What does he lose from turning down the deal, and what does he gain?
  3. Are all corporations inherently evil? Can small business be greedy? Do some corporations keep society's best interests at heart? In what ways have corporations helped professional sports? In what ways have they spoiled it?
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  1. What do you think of Spritle's behavior toward his parents? What about Speed and Rex disobeying their parents' wishes? Is there a difference in these acts of disobedience? Is it possible to honor your father and mother yet disagree or disobey them?
  2. Racer X tells Speed that, "It doesn't matter if racing changes; it only matters if we let racing change us." How do you interpret that advice in the context of the film? How is that thinking also applicable to the Christian walk? (Hint: Try replacing "racing" with "the world.")

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Speed Racer is rated PG for sequences of action, some violence, language, and brief smoking. The racing is wild (and impossible) but no one is hurt in the car crashes—drivers are encased in some kind of foam/plastic before ejecting from their vehicles. Violence is minimal, although one character's finger is chewed off by a piranha—offscreen, but it might be scary for small kids. There's some light profanity, including misuse of the Lord's name. The film is relatively wholesome, but there's a troubling scene involving Speed's rambunctious 11-year-old brother Spritle, who is disobedient to parents and flips the bird to a bad guy. Also, his monkey Chim-Chim throws poop in another villain's face. Since both characters are meant to elicit laughs, impressionable viewers may emulate Spritle's behavior.

What other Christian critics are saying:

Speed Racer
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for sequences of action, some violence, language, and brief smoking)
Directed By
Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Run Time
2 hours 15 minutes
Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, Christina Ricci
Theatre Release
May 09, 2008 by Warner Bros. Pictures
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