I went into Speed Racer with the lowest expectations imaginable - and I came out bursting with extreme satisfaction. f--- the critics, this movie is AWESOME.
I grabbed these (spoiler-free) impressions from AICN forum-goer max314, as he nails almost everything I wanted to say about the film that there's nary anything left for me to do but bold the parts I agree particularly strongly about:
I went to an afternoon matinée showing to fit around my schedule, and while there were only a few people there, we were all laughing along and people were cheering and whooping. And I left the cinema with a grin the size of a crescent moon plastered on my face. The Brothers seem to have delivered a real crowd-pleasing extravaganza of a film.
The racing scenes were bleeding spectacular. I mean "spectacular" in a way that has never even been imagined. Honestly, it deserves an Oscar nod just for art design. What's so ingenious about the opening sequence is that it not only sets up all the characters with entertaining and emotional efficiency, but it also establishes how the cars work in this fantasy world. So despite the races being faster than anything you're ever likely to see, the main action beats are always delivered with a clarity and a style that will keep you thrilled beyond belief. Each race is perfectly crafted with the stakes and the challenges rising further and further with each successive scene...until we reach a final showdown that leaves you utterly breathless. And the "visual vocabulary" of the film is truly innovative. It's like the camera is no object. As an audience member, you've never felt freer. Unlike the stylistic approach of the recent 'Star Wars' prequels, which generally used locked off cameras and relatively tame tracking shots, 'Speed Racer' ducks into, under and around the action in a way that opens up the medium like no other film before it. Compared to other film in its greenscreen sub-genre, this leaves movies like 'Sin City' and '300' looking rather timid by comparison.
But at the heart of it, this is really a film about fathers and their sons. A coming of age story about hope, expectation, and the pain of loss. I found myself with a lump in my throat while watching the movie. Wait, let me rephrase. I found myself with a lump in my throat within ten minutes of the film starting. Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox and Scott Porter as the young Rex Racer all provide intimate and genuinely moving performances. Make no mistake about it, this film is the definition of joviality on celluloid. But the story is basically driven by the shadow of a lost family member from the very first scene in the film, and that's what really makes the film worth watching. As well as being immersed in a fantasy world of drop dead gorgeous visuals, of course.
In the same way that 'Sin City' was an exaggerated, impressionistic noir, and just as '300' was an exaggerated, impressionistic war movie, 'Speed Racer' plays as an exaggerated, impressionistic 1960s kid's show. Which is exactly what it is. It's campy. It's fun, And it's full of humour and heart. Of course, brooding characters and over-the-top gore is easier to sell than camp, colourful fun, but allowing oneself to become absorbed in the film's style makes for a rewarding experience. I've heard complaints about the film's exposition, but the only scene where I could perhaps understand that criticism was about half way through when Taejo's family troubles were being told. But even that zipped by very quickly and the audience still understands exactly what was at stake in the upcoming race. So if it is a flaw, it's a minor one at best.
The characters are warm and lovable, the villains are wonderfully hissable, the actors' performances are all suitably camp, and the morality tale at the centre of it - the battle of family versus corporatism - gives the story a real spirit. And makes the races all that more enthralling to watch. It's infectiously charming, and even at 129 minutes the film glides like a T-180 on ice. I was convinced I was only in there for about thirty minutes, and when it finished I was left gagging for more.
So what's the verdict? Well, it's a tricky decision between 4 and 5 stars. While the story wasn't exactly the peak of literary greatness, it was very well told. Despite its two hour plus running time, the narrative was sharp, the emotionality was touching, and the plot turns were genuinely exciting. If the film wasn't such a special effects extravaganza, it would probably have been given a 4 star rating. But the film DOES have incredible special effects. And it DOES offer an absolutely sublime spectacle. Not only that, but the Wachowskis seem to have yet again set another industry standard - one that will likely be copied and mimicked for years to come. Until the Brothers reinvent the wheel for a fourth time, that is. And as such, the rating for this film is for something that could easily end up becoming a highly influential classic.
I definitely plan on seeing the film again, hopefully in IMAX next time. A few more notes of interest: Lots of great nods to the show. Spritle and Chim-Chim's antics are hilarious. I loved the real-time intercutting of past and present events, as well as the way they handled the Racer X story thread. The Casa Cristo race sequence is EPIC. And the music score is, of course, incredible; it's just too bad Ali Dee and The Deekompressors' remix track "Go Speed Racer Go" - featured during the initial credit roll, preceded by Giacchino's arrangement - didn't make it onto the CD soundtrack release. In context, it's the perfect feel-good track to leave the theater with. :) I'm just glad they made it available separately online.