Seizure Inducing or Avant-Garde? The case of ‘Speed Racer’

I recently picked up Michael Giacchino’s score to the Wachowski’s Brothers feature film Speed Racer (yes, based on the 60s Japanese Anime).  This film had the misfortune of opening the week after Iron Man and, along with having to compete with the Robert Downey, Jr. superhero pic, was also, with few exceptions, panned in the critical press.  Listening to the score made me want to see the film and that is exactly what I did last night.


As I see it, there is really only one thing wrong with the film, and it’s not actually the film’s fault…well maybe it is, but…well, let me explain.  The problem is that the film is not what the studios (probably) wanted, and it is not what they marketed it as.  Yes, the bright colors, cartoon stylized CGI, and fast cars all make it seem like it should be a children/family movie, but it isn’t.  One of the few positive reviews came from Glenn Kenny from Premiere Magazine, who calls it either, “the most headache inducing kid’s movie of them all [or]…the most expensive avant-garde film ever made.”  The main source of this avant-garde track is how the story is told in multiple layers of flashbacks that, if unprepared, can make the plot nigh un-followable.  The opening race/flashbacks tell the story of how obsessed with racing a young Speed is, and his relationship with his older brother Rex, while also revealing, in the so-called present, a young adult Speed literally racing the ghost of Rex and almost breaking his record at the local track.  But on a third level, we also have Rex’s race, and using slick transitions, we move back and forth in between the two races…and also back to Speed’s childhood.


And on top of this time-bending storytelling (which smoothes out for the most part after the opening) is some of the slickest CGI I’ve ever seen.  Forget Gollum and the Ring or the “hyper-reality” of 300, what the artists for Speed Racer achieved can only be described as pop art for the big screen.  The colors burst off the screen as the cars hurtle around tracks that not only laugh at and spit on, but also break in submission the laws of physics.  And the racing set pieces?  Exhilarating.  One reviewer said how there was never any true sense of danger in the races, but for me, that didn’t make them any less exciting.


The CGI and colors of the film are what made it transcend from simple remake of an old anime cartoon into a film that…well…I’m not truly sure what it is yet.  But it’s not a kids film, even if that is where I found it in Best Buy.  It’s a film that revels in the camp of the old anime, but also has an emotional heart to it, as it is the tale of the Racer family (brilliantly played by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, and annoying, yet endearing, younger brother Spritle played by Paulie Litt, while Speed is played by an understated Emile Hirsch).  The two fight sequences (the first, of course, with ninjas, and the second with a gaggle of Mafioso rejects) also heighten the anime camp, taking cues from Tarentino and Kill Bill it seems like – but without the gushing blood.


It is a pastiche of anime on the one side, but on the other a brilliantly edited and rendered work.  And on the other hand, it is an emotional family tale of the little guy against the big-bad corporation.  Many reviews also latched onto the contradiction of a summer kids movie that was obviously meant to have multiple merchandising tie-ins being one with an anti-corporate message.  But a simple Wikipedia browsing will point to the fact that the corporate vs. independent as a plot point in the original anime series.  Here, though, it takes on the added layer of race fixing conspiracies and corporate takeovers.  In our cynical world where point shaving schemes, charges of the NBA being rigged, and the New York Yankees are everyday, the idea of the corporations who sponsor the leagues fixing the outcomes don’t seem so farfetched.


But to expect kids to understand all of this?  I doubt my young cousins could understand all of this.  Hell, I doubt my older cousins could.  I’m not even sure I understood all of it!


A few quick words about the score to wrap things up.  I’ve already done a brief review over at my other blog (Edit 2013: read the review here), but now that I’ve seen the film, I have a few more observations.  As I mention in my review, Giacchino interweaves the classic “Go Speed Racer Go” theme song into the score.  What I can now say is that the moments he chooses to are masterfully chosen.  At the moments of highest tension in the race scenes, just a snippet of the old theme will come in as Speed pulls off some stunt move to slide past his opponents or elude a devilish cheater.  The one non-race moment when theme comes in is during the obligatory montage right before the big race.  In this case, the racer family has to build a new car for the Grand Prix in less than two days, and the building montage has snippets of “Go Speed Racer Go” in it.  What Giacchino also does here is that he has taken the whole hook (you know, “Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer Go-oo!”) and brakes it up into smaller segments and they float in and out of the musical score.  And the only time we really hear that whole hook is at the very end of the film.


So seizure inducing kids film or brilliantly subversive avant-garde cinema?  I’m not sure I’m prepared to announce it as more ripe for academic consideration than the Wachowski’s previous efforts (The Matrix and V for Vendetta), but I also know for certain that this is no kids movie.  My recommendation, though, is that you should go out and rent or buy it while you still can.  Even with DVD sales the film STILL has yet to earn back its budget, so who knows when the studio will just give up on it.  Strong 4.5/5.

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