Even more than most summer-season f/x fests, Speed Racer is a live-action/animation hybrid and, what's more, proud of it. Bright, shiny and button-cute, the movie is a self-consciously tawdry trifle — a celluloid analog to the ribbon-bedecked, mirrored gewgaws that clever European settlers hoped to swap with the savages for Manhattan Island.
What you see is what you get. "Production design" is a poor term to describe Owen Paterson's avidly garish look. Gaudier than a Hindu-temple roof, louder than the Las Vegas night, Speed Racer is a cathedral of glitz. The movie projects a Candy Land topography of lava-lamp skies and Hello Kitty clouds — part Middle Earth, part mental breakdown — using a beyond-Bollywood color scheme wherein telephones are blood orange, jet planes electric fuchsia and ultra-turquoise is the new black.
Call it Power Kitsch, Neo-Jetsonism or Icon-D — this film could launch a movement. A dream (or perhaps nightmare) team of pop artists might have collaborated on Speed Racer's mise en scène. The futuristic multihued skyscrapers seem a figment of Kenny Scharf's imagination; the glazed female leads might be Jeff Koons sculptures sporting Takashi Murakami accessories. And that's just the "Sunday Styles" stuff. Once the various gizmobiles accelerate to warp speed on roller-coaster racetracks seemingly conceived by Dr. Seuss, the screen reconstitutes itself as a Bridget Riley vortex or a mad geometric abstraction of Kenneth Noland racing stripes.
For me, this carousel, which clocks in at a leisurely 135 minutes, is more fun to describe than to ride. Blithely nonlinear for its first half hour, the past merging with the present as shifting backgrounds segue to flashbacks, Speed Racer has a narrative at once simpleminded and senseless, albeit touchingly faithful to Tatsuo Yoshida's original cartoons. Here, too, the eponymous hero (Emile Hirsch) — child of the auto-inventor Pops Racer (John Goodman, man-mountain of goodwill) and Mom Racer (self-Stepfordized Susan Sarandon) — is born to drive the family Mach 5, particularly once older brother Rex is seemingly vaporized in a wreck. And drive Speed does — if not quite as well as the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).
Generically speaking, Speed Racer will never be confused with a no-frills dynamo like Howard Hawks's The Crowd Roars (or even Hawks's fascinatingly flaccid mid-'60s racing hallucination Red Line 7000). For all the excited color commentary ("Speed Racer is driving straight up a cliff face!!!"), the races lack drama. Each spectacle is an autonomous, enjoyably lurid tinsel-confetti blur, with crack-ups as convoluted as they are inconsequential. As choreographed as the action is, it lacks only printed sound effects — WHAM! BLAM! POW! — to signpost the Wachowskis' facetiousness.
After the relative failures of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions and the widespread disapproval inspired by their tastelessly anarcho-terrorist V for Vendetta, the brothers have opted for family-friendly fluff. In place of irony, there's a sprinkling of camp sentimentality. Speed is abetted by plucky girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, reliving her lysergic past as Addams Family ingenue), who, Louise Brooks bob set off by a pair of red barrettes, is even more of a porcelain doll than Mom. And, as back in the day, the clan includes a tubby little brother (Paulie Litt) with a bratty pet chimp. Everyone has a role, even if it's only a matter of creative lurking. As Pops and his engineer, Sparky (Kick Gurry), rebuild the Mach 5 for the Grand Prix, Mom makes the peanut-butter sandwiches. No Oracle she.
Like The Matrix (or its engagingly primitive precursor, the DOS-era Disney relic Tron), Speed Racer gives the not unrealistic impression of taking place inside a computer. But love, hate or ignore it, The Matrix proposed a social mythology. (Just ask Slavoj iek.) Speed Racer is simply a mishmash that, among other things, intermittently parodies the earlier film's pretensions: His path plotted by a mysterious cabal, Speed Racer could be the One. Indeed, in the grand first-installment climax, messianic frenzy merges with market research as the young racer's "upset" victory bids not only to change the face of high-stakes race-car driving but the nature of reality itself: "It's a whole new world!" This hopeful self-promotion is especially ridiculous in that Speed Racer — like The Matrix and the plot-heavy V for Vendetta — ostentatiously traffics in left-wing allegory.
The villain (Roger Allam, V for Vendetta's fascist talk-show host) is a slavering tycoon, while Speed Racer is, as his mother tells him, an artist. In the movie, racing is itself a racket — the effluvium of decaying Capital within the Matrix. Multinationals sponsor drivers, fix races and use the sport to drive up the market price of their stock — so the Wachowski brothers might once have regarded Hollywood. Ideologically anticorporate, their previous productions aspired to be something more than mindless sensation; Speed Racer is thrilled to be less. It's the delusions minus the grandeur.