Speed, if only you'd use the force and listen to your car, you could finally get this engine started.

Speed Racer
(the 2008 movie, naturally)

This met pretty much all of my expectations, including the negative ones, plus what I like to call 'adjust-for-error' expectations, which come into play whenever I hear a lot of mainline movie critics comment on a picture's excessive nature.

It's a simple concept: if you're writing a lot of reviews for a big, visible media outlet, chances are your acclimations as to style or volume are going to drift toward the conservative, since that's where most big studio films sit, and coverage of big studio films is mandatory in terms of servicing the wide readership. I'm not saying you'll become more inclined toward liking big studio films, but I think you'll internalze their aesthetic norms, so as to cause deviations (especially coming from another big studio film!) to stand out as especially harsh. And hey - that matches up with the perspective of a lot of filmgoers.

But, for me, when I hear a lot of broad media critics say Speed Racer is a pounding assault on the senses like dipping my eyeballs into the cotton candy mixer while riding the salt-shakers or something, I might be fooled into thinking it'd be like the first 15 minutes of Irreversible extended to feature length, with automobile racing and Chim Chim in place of face-crushing in the Rectum. Luckily, I know to adjust for error these days, and, sure enough, writers/directors Larry & Andy Wachowski did not burn out any parts of my brain that hadn't been gone years ago.

Could have used a little more attempted burning, actually. The big, crucial problem with Speed Racer is exactly what I anticipated - at 135 minutes, it is just way too fucking long, in such a way that the film seems unbalanced. I mean, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that Speed Racer ought to fly by; one of the (probably unintended) effects of the original anime's famously fast-talking English dub was that it seemed the characters themselves could never entirely keep up with the show's pace, particularly in concert with the plotting's one-thing-after-another ethos.

There's no fast talking in this movie, and I don't think it would have helped. There is a great opening race where the camera literally dives in and out of characters' heads to dole out scene-setting flashbacks and tie them up with the present - it's pretty, and pretty economical in its storytelling, and even inspired in its use of the Ghost Car -- that old video game time-trial standby -- as a visual metaphor for Speed's twin obsessions with being the best and being close to his lost older brother. But after that you're in for a tall stack of reels stuffed with familial angst (alas, Rex Racer!!) and corporate chicanery (will Speed sell out to powerful business interests, aka Evil?!), and dabbed with Spritle/Chim Chim antics for comic relief; if I was 12, I'd have been shouting for more cars.

Now, the kid 'n monkey stuff was also present in the original anime, as was some of the angst and chicanery. The Wachowskis do recognize the concept of 'family' as the core of the overall Speed Racer concept; always, in every incarnation, Speed is backed by his close-knit circle of friends and relatives, and the overriding dramatic element is that Rex Racer is always missing, causing the family unit to be incomplete until the resolution of the overarching Racer X plot, and thereby, more or less, the series. I always liked the setup of the '60s anime and manga, where Rex simply has a big fight with Pops Racer and severs his connections with home; it's very relatable, and allows Speed, optimistic shōnen hero that he is, to always keep hope alive that someday he'll meet his brother again.

The Wachowskis opt for a different approach - as in the ill-fated 1997 anime update Speed Racer X, Rex is believed dead from racing, adding a lot more permanence to the family break. For the movie, this translates to multiple scenes of guilty head-wringing, melodramatic tearful chit-chats and unconvincing suspense over whether or not Speed will also die and shit. It's like wading through syrup at times, and smacks of trying to add some older-skewing 'maturity' by making things frowny. It also doesn't help that Racer X is kinda poorly developed in terms of the family theme; he mostly acts as this tangential superhero cop who inspires Speed, which I guess reinforces his 'death' from the family, but also puts him at arm's length from all that crying he's caused.

Worse in terms of stretching things out is all the corporate shenanigans, a fine example of a 'simple-complicated' plot, in that a very basic story is fancied up with extra characters and double-crosses and digressions so as to make it appear more complex, even though you can still pare it down to 'Speed must win the big race to beat the bad corporations' without losing much of substance. And indeed, that paring down is pretty much what the initial cartoon and comics did, trusting that slimy cheats and sneaks didn't need to be thoroughly labeled as such.

Some have also expressed special annoyance with an anti-big business message coming from a nine-figure budgeted Warner Brothers film, although it didn't strike me as any different from your typical boilerplate Hollywood populism, wherein the workaholic city dweller typically recovers his or her soul in a bucolic setting, and the Chipmunks and Josie & the Pussycats struggle with the music industry, and etc. etc. I was more annoyed at all the wheel-spinning detail of the Speed Racer Universe Commercial Racing Business and Relevant History -- all of it at least as polished and done-over as the special effects but not nearly as compact -- and the Wachowskis' tendency to self-aggrandize by having characters refer to the racing set-pieces in hushed tones as True Art.

Still, there's probably something... there in the differing approaches of this movie and its source material. The very first story in the '66 comic/'67 anime pits Speed and his family against an evil bunch of capitalists who want to steal Pops' hot hot engine plans; there's a famous (well, famous to me) bit where Speed would rather smash the windshield of his beloved Mach 5, upon which the plans were inscribed, rather than let them fall into unclean hands. The trick is, that story begins with Pops trying to sell the plans to that same large business, only to be rejected and later made the target of thieves.

That makes perfect sense for Japan in the mid-'60s, seeking its fortune in rapid business development - the big money folk aren't bad, they're just bad when they're bad. In contrast, you won't find a large business in the Wachowskis' movie that isn't prone to lies and/or heartless self-interest. Individual people in the system might have some good in them, but only when they act against the interest of the larger entity. At best, those fully in the system can sit back and not get in the way of the Little Guys when they no longer have a dog in the fight. Like I said, Hollywood populism, but still reflective of the environment the action must take place in.

And I've gotta admit - those races and fights are damned neat. I really appreciated how no attempt was made to make the many, many special effects seem 'realistic'; instead, all attention was focused on achieving consistency inside the movie's candy-colored bubble world. In terms of comics and animation-based movies, this positions Speed Racer as a sort of an evolution of Tim Burton's unreal, style-heavy approach to Batman (or Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, what with all the villain make-up and solid colors) by way of the youth-focused green screen mania of Spy Kids, while also acting as a beneficiary of the Japanese tokusatsu tradition, with its own roots in kabuki and bunraku theater. All the cars could jump in bunraku; ask any scholar. Don't forget the video games either - the Wachowskis had to have known the gaming comparisons were coming, and they embrace moments of video game logic as movie logic, like calling those life-saving bubbles 'quick saves.'

The attention to detail is very fine, enough so that you can even suss out on the fly the 'rules' of these huge races where some gizmo or another might be totally ok while others are total cheats - all the 'good' tricks are either totally defensive or used to enhance movement, while the 'bad' ones are offensive or intended to impede the movement of another vehicle. Hitting with your car is ok -- that's just natural, I guess -- but hitting with an external apparatus is not. Thank god Speed never uses the homing bird; the story might have had to pause for exposition on relevant Speed Racer case law (corrupt, no doubt)! On a fanservice level, I especially liked how the action worked as an enhancement of the show's style. There's a ton of spinning, and colorful opponents with cartoonish weapons, and nearly every member of the Racer family is amazing at hand-to-hand combat. There's speed lines and a gratuitous shōnen fight scene homage and everything.

Yet there's also build at work; the visual design of the races grow more and more garish as the movie goes on, which seems natural in building an action movie to a climax, but it also serves to push each newer, bigger finish closer to the realm of the abstract, until Speed is finally blurring reality with his car, his passion for winning pushing him a little ways out of simple human experience itself, in that even non-superhero figures like himself are a little more than mortal by their examples.

More of that would have been nice, or at least less wheezing along the way. Speed Racer is good enough to stick with -- most of the sluggish bits are helpfully loaded up front, and it's an impressive work of ship-in-a-bottle worldbuilding -- but I wish I could have seen something that would make me rue my correction for error, and blow past what I'd expect. God, to see Speed crack the frame of mortal comprehension with the might of computer matter behind him - there's his victory! That's his finish line!