Speed Racer, the Wachowski brothers’ ambitious live-action remake of the beloved 1960s anime, is a resounding success if you judge it based on what it's trying to do, using no other metric; the directors set out to create a live-action cartoon while translating the look and feel of the anime, and they have. One look at a single frame of this hyper-focused, candy colored spectacle will tell you that they've nailed the unique visual style while adding a mountain of unabashed flash and glitz, and after about 10 minutes of the film itself, it's clear they've managed to perfectly emulate the unironic, impossibly sincere and simplistic storytelling of the original show.
The problem is that the act of actually sitting through this movie is not unlike being punched in the eyeball with a neon hammer for 2 hours.
The story is as basic as anyone would expect. Speed is a single-minded driving prodigy who participates in dangerous races in the memory of his fallen brother, Rex. His loving girlfriend Trixie and his doting, car-obsessed family – irascible Pops, wise Mom, rambunctious Spritle and inexplicable family chimpanzee Chim-Chim stand by his side and tune up his super-powered car, the Mach 5. Speed's skill on the track catches the eye of Royalton, a racing mogul who offers Speed corporate sponsorship, which he refuses on the basis that “racing is a religion” to his family and corporations are “the devil”. Royalton obviously turns out to be quite evil and informs Speed that all the winners of the Grand Prix – the big race Speed hopes to win one day – are fixed by big corporations in order to raise stock prices, and that he'll never race again, etcetera and so on. The not-at-all mysterious Racer X shows up, there's some shenanigans with a group of thugs Royalton has dispatched to take Speed and his family out, and it all climaxes at the Grand Prix, just as you'd expect.
The performances are all just fine; the characters are all cardboard archetypes with Saturday Morning dialogue, so although the cast is quite talented – including Emile Hirsch, of last year's critically beloved Into the Wild, and the always game Susan Sarandon and John Goodman - these roles aren't exactly stretch material for any of them. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the cast on a movie like this is simply keeping the tone of the film steady, which they do with ease. Even poor Matthew Fox, of Lost fame, does a fine job maintaining a perfect poker face while jump-kicking mobsters in a silly leather jumpsuit.
That tone is one of the unique things about this film, and perhaps one of the most unexpected; the love for the source material is all there on screen. Typically when a remake of a 1960's TV show is greenlit, the script is firmly tongue-in-cheek, if not a flat-out parody of the original material. In Speed Racer, there is not a drop of irony or camp to be found; big fans of the original series, clearly the Wachowskis are going for complete sincerity, ultimately creating a surprisingly innocent (if emotionally and thematically empty) family film for a new generation of children, those who have grown up with the anime aesthetic splashed all over cable TV and a steady diet of video games.
Unfortunately, getting through it is a trial for anyone under 10 who didn't eat an entire box of sugar-saturated cereal beforehand. Seemingly constructed with $120 million worth of neon fingerpaints and a camera mounted to a Tilt-A-Whirl car, Speed Racer only occasionally stops to breathe. The racing sequences – oh, the endless racing sequences – are thrilling and feel almost revolutionary at the start, but by the 30-minute mark you'll be checking your watch and sort of wishing the reel would break. When the film does slow down, you'll wish it would start up again, and when it does, you want it to stop. The trippy, nearly abstract finale almost feels like the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey all over again. Once the frame explodes into a swirling mess of psychedelic color, it becomes clear – if it wasn't already blisteringly clear by the previous 2 hours and 9 minutes, about 45 minutes longer than a remake of Speed Racer has any right to be - that this film is entirely about its own kinetic visual acrobatics and nothing else.
Ultimately, though, it's very obvious that that's exactly what the directors set out to do. This is punishingly self-obsessed pop art at 200 miles per hour, and it's almost as if the Wachowskis are daring the audience to keep up with it. Faulting the film for being exactly what it's intended to be is unfair; it boils down to whether or not the audience can tolerate it.