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Friday, July 4, 2008

'Speed Racer'

He's a remake on wheels

Here at The Japan Times, my job is officially that of "reviewer," but some days I feel more like the guy whose job it is to taste the king's food for poison. If the taster doesn't drop dead, the king digs in. Similarly, if I emerge from the latest Hollywood popcorn flick without having suffered severe and lasting mental retardation, then I tell you all it's safe to see.

Speed Racer Rating: (1 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Speed Racer
In first gear: Emile Hirshc and Christina Ricci in "Speed Racer" © 2008 WARNER BROS. ENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (July 4, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Well, with "Speed Racer," my ride ended. The brain damage inflicted by the mind-boggling stupidity and pointlessness of the movie left me staggering out of the theater, barely able to find my way home. A one-star review is hardly a sufficient caution for "Speed Racer" — this flick requires a Surgeon General's warning: "Viewing this movie may lead to nausea, disorientation, seizures and cessation of mental function."

This is a movie that has the same effect as those pyramids of skulls the Mongol hordes used to mark their conquests with: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

It's a movie that will put you off going to the movies. You will wonder if this film was ever shown to any sentient beings before being dumped in the theaters — there's nothing here remotely funny, exciting or entertaining in any way.

Salon.com critic Stephanie Zacharek nailed it by noting: "You're in trouble when your movie doesn't even get laughs with a monkey."

Directed by The Wachowski Brothers of "Matrix" fame, "Speed Racer" is a remake of a much-loved 1960s Japanese cartoon. Produced by Tatsuo Yoshida, "Mahha GoGoGo" was mildly successful in Japan but really took off upon export to the United States, where — dubbed into English — it became the first infusion of anime into the West.

The cartoon followed a race-car driver named Speed in his adventures on and off the track with a supporting cast that included his sweetheart Trixie, his car-designing dad, Pops, his kid brother, Spritle, and their mascot chimp, Chim Chim. Also hovering on the margins was the mysterious masked Racer X, who would appear to pull Speed's chestnuts out of the fire and then ride off. Just as cool were the superslick cars on display, none more so than Speed's white Mach 5.

All the characters are in the Wachowskis' film, but unfortunately none of them are animated. Emile Hirsch as Speed and Christina Ricci as Trixie look suitably two-dimensional, but in that creepy "Beowulf" style where they look like a vinyl version of a real person. Since the entire film was digitally rendered, I had assumed the actors' avatars were as well. Apparently not, but they sure look fake. The argument here of course is that real actors are still more expressive than digital puppets. Well, not in this film.

The original "Speed Racer" had a look that was a large part of its charm; in moving to 3-D CGI, the film loses that pop, retro-anime feel entirely. It replaces it with what might just be the ugliest looking set design ever. Art directors Hugh Bateup and Sebastian Krawinkel must be color blind, that's the only explanation for the garish, glaring, absolutely cheap look they create here. It's all Dayglo orange, Smurf blue, and headache pink; it's like if God was a McDonald's franchise interior designer and created the world on acid. It hurts the eyes.

The plot — involving rival race teams, race fixing and Speed's desire to live up to his dead older brother Rex's rep — is a muddle, and the Racer X mystery, so crucial to the cartoon, can be guessed within the film's first 15 minutes, and let's all boo the Wachowskis for that.

The race sequences are certainly fast, but the cars have a weightless, floating quality — there's no sense of traction. It's a multicolored riot of pinball-like tracks, but — as usual for recent Hollywood — the races are so rapidly cut, it's almost impossible to tell what's happening.

Boomer directors with budgets to play with just can't resist the nostalgic pull of the TV programs of their youth; it's an urge — like pyromania or thinking you can fly while on drugs — best resisted. "Speed Racer" joins a lineage of disasters that includes "The Flintstones," "The Avengers" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle." All the small pleasures of childhood TV wilt under the glare of excessive hype, buckle under the weight of a bloated budget and collapse from the curse of Taking It Too Seriously. (When the Wachowskis get all mystical about driving in "Speed Racer," that might be the one time you laugh.)

I will say one thing for "Speed Racer": It sure knows its audience. In an early scene, we see a young Speed taking a standardized test at school, straining to sit still as he fidgets and taps his foot at 180 bpm, erasing his random answers like he's trying to saw through the desk. Yes, hyperactive 8-year-olds who score low on tests — they will love this film.

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