The Wachowskis never do anything by half. Ever since the runaway success of the already daring The Matrix, they’ve been able to push the envelope on weird and often wonderful films. The Matrix sequels were pretty bad, but they weren’t boring; they vibrated with ambition and admirably lofty goals, and fell well short. 2012’s Cloud Atlas was a brilliant, sprawling, intricate film, which many regard as their magnum opus. What came in between? Speed Racer, a family film which adapted a popular anime series. And the weird thing is, it might just be their best.
Emile Hirsch as Speed in Speed Racer. Photo Credit: Village Roadshow Pictures.
Speed Racer is the story of Speed Racer (his literal name), the greatest racing driver in the world, who seeks to avenge his brother Rex Racer by racing for his small family company against the might of evil, corrupt corporations. It’s absurdly faithful, reproducing signature sound effects, side characters, musical cues, and a myriad tiny details. The love for the material is obvious and unashamed, and that’s key to what makes Speed Racer work so well.
The Wachowskis’ films are emotional, sentimental, optimistic, and idealistic – and sincere. There isn’t a single false moment in Speed Racer. Even the scenes with the youngest Racer brother and his pet monkey play perfectly, because these aren’t cynical sequences inserted to keep kids happy; they’re imbued with a very real sense of fun and wonder. Wachowski movies have never rewarded those sad sacks who insist on creating cerebral walls between themselves and the film; either you commit, or you get nothing out of it. That’s the contract. Cloud Atlas could be absurd if you wanted to take it that way, but if you allow yourself to be sucked into the cinematic and emotional opulence of it all, it takes on great power. The same goes for Speed Racer.
It’s a family movie in every sense of the word. It ain’t thematically subtle; it writes its message in fireworks across the sky. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon (playing characters literally called Pops Racer and Mom Racer) take the (deliberately) corniest archetypal parent roles ever and fill them with tangible life and love, deriving incredible power from their very simplicity. Speed Racer’s honest literalness is disarming, sweet without ever being cloying and effervescent without losing substance. It has no pretensions whatsoever, and it never loses confidence in its elemental message. Total self-belief is critical to this kind of film; if there’s any doubt or cynicism from the director, you end up with forgettable kids’ trash. The Wachowskis made this for themselves, and they know in their bones what makes a good film.
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Speed Racer is its aesthetic. It’s revolutionary, years ahead of its time; practically nothing but the actors is real, everything else being a wildly colourful CGI world which is at the same time obviously ‘false’ and completely true. It commits to a super-heightened cartoon existence with commendable tonal and visual consistency. Some of the race sequences are works of art, beautiful explosions of colour and motion that never ever loses touch with the basics of visual storytelling. The form is extravagant, but the function is quietly excellent. Peter Jackson could take some tips.
Speed Racer is a triumphant expression of pure, exhilarating cinema. It’s bizarre, it’s off the wall, it’s completely unlike anything before or since, and it’s incredibly audacious. It understandably failed at the box office, but it’s undergoing a deserved critical revival. See it, believe in it, commit to it, and let it sweep you off your feet.