Speed Racer

Speed Racer movie poster


The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extra­or­di­nary to watch. As with their break­through The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feel­ing that you’re see­ing some­thing new; not just emer­gent tech­nolo­gies but a whole new style of moviemak­ing. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why under­take such huge effort and expense just to repli­cate the essence of a poorly writ­ten and cheaply ani­mated TV series that no one, not even the geeki­est Japan­ese animé otaku (fan­boy), really misses? This film might have been so much bet­ter if they had jet­ti­soned the bag­gage of the intel­lec­tual prop­erty (a mis­nomer in this case) and told an orig­i­nal story in this rad­i­cal new style.

The movie incar­na­tion of Speed Racer has inher­ited the visual quirks of the orig­i­nal 1960s car­toon, cross-bred with the information-rich com­put­er­ized motion graph­ics of mod­ern tele­vised sports. The color scheme is dom­i­nated by bright, pri­mary col­ors like War­ren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before com­puter graph­ics and dig­i­tal color grad­ing). Talk­ing heads lat­er­ally pan across the screen, usu­ally redun­dantly nar­rat­ing the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watch­ing ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed RacerChristina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also mod­eled after video games and Japan­ese animé in gen­eral. Huge sequences are entirely com­puter gen­er­ated, with what lit­tle live action pho­tog­ra­phy there is most likely shot against green­screen sound­stages. The Wachowskis’ res­i­dent spe­cial effects mad sci­en­tist John Gaeta metic­u­lously stages the many incred­i­ble car chases like bat­tles in a war movie from an alter­nate uni­verse. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars pre­quel trilo­gies, the movie prac­ti­cally is ani­mated. Just watch­ing it, it’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every sin­gle line of dia­log is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car dri­ver, a lone hon­est man in a cor­rupt indus­try. Yes, his name is actu­ally Mr… Speed… Racer. His dis­graced older brother Rex died a mys­ti­fy­ing death years before, pro­vid­ing Speed with the moti­va­tion to prove him­self both as a dri­ver and as an hon­est man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Saran­don and John Good­man) some­times appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoy­ing lit­tle brother with a Brook­lyn accent and, god help us all, a mon­key. The odd­ball extended Racer fam­ily also includes the Aus­tralian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s heli­copter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endear­ing baby fat and now seems star­tlingly skinny). The whole gang appar­ently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the liv­ing room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehic­u­lar vari­ety, the Wachowskis wisely scat­ter about a few awe­some wire-fu fight sequences designed (appar­ently not designed by The Matrix’s genius chore­o­g­ra­pher Woo-ping Yuen). The most excit­ing and visu­ally impres­sive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow pro­vid­ing manga–like motion lines (a char­ac­ter­is­tic of Japan­ese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Good­man gets in on the act, and one under­stands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for rea­sons other than a big stu­dio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed RacerLike audi­ences world­wide, Emile Hirsch is a lit­tle over­whelmed by the visuals

If I were to sin­gle out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suf­fers, like Richard Kelly’s South­land Tales (read The Dork Report review), with too much back­story. Over­long for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adver­saries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop­star Rain) to accom­plish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injus­tice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has some­thing to do with vet­eran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remem­ber details after two-plus hours of sheer sen­sory over­load? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dan­gling (mostly involv­ing the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypo­thet­i­cal third episode.

For any num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons, this very expen­sive folly bombed and we almost cer­tainly won’t see that tril­ogy. The Wachowski broth­ers were per­ceived to have fum­bled the wildly pop­u­lar Matrix fran­chise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minor­ity opin­ion that the sec­ond, The Matrix Reloaded, is actu­ally their mas­ter­piece), they pro­duced the thick­headed V for Vendetta (mud­dy­ing up and widely miss­ing the point of the pow­er­ful anar­chist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not sur­pris­ing that the moviego­ing pub­lic, even the genre-loving fan­boys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the orig­i­nal Speed Racer car­toon is excep­tion­ally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embar­rass­ment by issu­ing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crap­pi­est movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc pack­age padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added mate­r­ial. There’s noth­ing at all on the DVD about the obvi­ously ground­break­ing spe­cial effects. Instead, the film­mak­ers decided that what audi­ences wanted was more mon­key (the vile beastie stars in the clos­ing cred­its sequence) and more annoy­ing kid brother (who costars in a mock­men­tary fea­ture with an embar­rass­ingly poorly acted appear­ance by pro­ducer Joel Silver).

Offi­cial movie site: speedracerthemovie.warnerbros.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.


Paprika movie poster


There’s a huge inter­est in Japan­ese manga and animé in the us, but it’s rare for an animé fea­ture film to get a the­atri­cal release. From the name and poster alone (indeed, what caught my own inter­est), one might not even guess Paprika is foreign-language, let alone animé. Animé is a medium, not a genre, but it does have a cer­tain pop­u­lar per­cep­tion in the US: either the apoc­a­lyp­tic sci-fi of Akira or the fairy tale fan­ta­sia of Spir­ited Away. And that’s not even tak­ing into account the expec­ta­tions of a gen­er­a­tion of kids that grew up watch­ing the dubbed Robot­ech and Star Blaz­ers seri­als (which would be exem­pli­fied by… me).

The pop­u­lar per­cep­tion is not wrong; I’m not an animé expert, but Paprika has sev­eral of the super­fi­cial trap­pings: cyber­netic tech­nol­ogy (like Ghost in the Shell), a ghost­like female crea­ture (like direc­tor Satoshi Kon’s ear­lier Mil­len­nium Actress), and an expo­nen­tially grow­ing world-eating beast (like Akira and America’s own The Blob). But what sets Paprika apart is its psy­che­delic imagery, adult themes, and sheer weirdness.

PaprikaVal­ley of the Dolls

Like Blade Run­ner, it’s equal parts detec­tive story and sci­ence fic­tion, with a splash of hor­ror. The mys­tery genre pro­vides a struc­ture for the nom­i­nal plot: Paprika is the dream alter ego of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a dream researcher build­ing a machine for use in psy­cho­an­a­lytic dream analy­sis. The device they’re build­ing is called the “DC Mini”, a name which, every sin­gle time, made this Dork Reporter think of DC Comics minis­eries. Chiba’s Blade Run­ner–esque mis­sion is to track down three miss­ing DC Mini devices, and their co-creator.

PaprikaI hate it when that happens

Paprika even shares a theme with Blade Run­ner: the moral reper­cus­sions of new tech­nolo­gies. If dreams are a kind of “place”, and can be a shared real­ity (like the world of The Dream­ing in Neil Gamain’s Sand­man comic book series), what is the dif­fer­ence between it and real life? The poten­tial of one world bleed­ing into another is very lit­er­ally dan­ger­ous. One of the film’s vil­lains uses the dream real­ity to com­mit a very dis­turb­ing form of rape, and another goes so far as to label the tech­nol­ogy a poten­tial form of ter­ror­ism: “Implant­ing dreams into other people’s heads is ter­ror­ism.” This is not hyper­bole in the film’s uni­verse: the city is almost destroyed by dreams.

Two final lit­tle things:

  • What’s the deal with the name? Is it a trans­la­tion issue, or some­thing about Japan­ese cul­ture (or cui­sine) I’m not aware of? A metaphor of spices and recipes is used at one point, but it still seems oddly random.
  • A key char­ac­ter is movie-obsessed cop, an ama­teur film­maker in his youth. His noirish dreams only fur­ther expand the Blade Run­ner par­al­lels. Paprika explic­itly equates movie watch­ing with dreams and memory.

Offi­cial movie site: www.paprikamovie.com

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to me.