I was thinking about what I was going to write about this month - most of the time, December means a lot of end-of-the-year recaps, many of which are often premature. (Or appear, say, around Thanksgiving). But I think that, without too much hyperbole, that I can write about a movie that, for my money, is one of the better - and most under appreciated - comic-related films to be released in 2008. It did not have the mega-hype of The Dark Knight - or the almost out-of-nowhere appeal of Iron Man (and when you think about it, there aren't too many degrees of separation between the characters), but my selection for most overlooked comic/cartoon/animation-related movie is a little off the beaten path...
...and that movie's name is Speed Racer.
But Gordon,, you're thinking and/or saying to yourself, Isn't it a little early to make such a pronouncement before the end of the year? And quite frankly, how can you make a pronouncement about a rather goofy adaptation of an old cartoon?
Well, my first answer is a rather flip one, as I will declare that this movie has everything that any piece of classic cinema (according to Elia Kazan) should have, including:
But in all honesty, what makes Speed Racer pretty cool is that it is honest with itself - it's a loud, gaudy, overstuffed, amped up movie about auto racing, but most importantly - beneath the candy-colored, glossy, computer-generated scenery is probably one of the smartest, almost radical anti-establishment (and self-honesty) messages ever written. Granted, it treats the source material almost like Hamlet, but this is a movie that - although a wee bit too long - contains much more than your average movie.
(Oh, and I also will fight you on the live action Underdog movie, which I liked a lot. But that's a column for another month).
First, let's talk about the plot - obviously, it focuses on the Racer family: Pops (John Goodman), who owns an independent company that builds racing cars (and in the movie, racing cars is a big deal - it's baseball, football, and anything else super popular rolled into one; his loving wife (Susan Sarandon), their son "Speed" (Emile Hirsch), his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), and Spritle, his youngest brother. Granted, there's a history of tragedy and a hint of dysfunction - older brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter) had a major argument with Pops over his career. Unfortunately, Rex dies in a car accident...until Speed meets Racer X (Matthew Fox), a fellow participant in races. In all honesty, this is one of the best things about the film - despite all the special effects wizardry, the movies stays grounded in a strong family dynamic. There's also a great sense that the characters actually progress through an arc. We see Pops throw out one son, forbidding him to ever come back....but that, towards the end, he's learned some semblance of forgiveness, as another sense is always reminded how welcome he is.
But what makes the movie stand out is that, much like the other films that the Wachowski Brothers have made (including the more recent V for Vendetta, and reaching all the way back to their debut, Bound), Speed Racer centers of the theme of discovering one's identity and true calling. I've blogged about why I enjoy the movie version of Vendetta - Speed Racer deals with discovering, as Racer X (Matthew Fox) declares, "it's not what you drive - it's what's driving you". Granted, it masks it under the guise of corporate temptation - the movie kicks into gear when Speed turns down a very lucrative sponsorship from Royston - but there's something very elegant about the way in which the movie deals with finding one's own values. One of the great things that Emile Hirsch does is... well, his portrayal of Speed is slightly one dimensional, but that's the point - this is a character whose entire life has been centered around race cars and race car driving, and who in a slightly Matrix-esque sequence, realizes that driving is his true calling. It may sound like a stretch, but in many ways, Speed Racer is a brightly colored ode to independent thinking - of following one's calling. In fact, in its way, it's as subtly subversive about youth finding their identity as the live action Josie & the Pussycats was about overt marketing to youth.
(Yes, I liked Josie & the Pussycats. That may even be a later column as well. But at least I don't like Joel Schumacher's Batman films).
But ultimately, what makes the film work is the racing sequences - much like the original animated series, Speed Racer has that same breathless, almost manic pace - one sequence even feels lifted straight from the series. (Of course, the series rarely, if ever, used the phrase "monkey cookie"). Past and present often ebb and flow into each other, and it seems less like a gimmick and more like a way to interweave dense pieces of story. For sequences that were done primarily through CGI, the race sequences have a great energy about them, and despite the gaudy colors, the whole movie actually seems to take place in another, more unrealistic world... and the tension between the cartoonish aspects and the realistic performances help lift this. It's a movie that sits in between - it was deemed a 'failure' because it only earned less than $20 million its opening weekend. On some level, it's explainable - it's a little too loud, a little too long, a little over the top. However, look past those factors and you'll find some really sharp, thoughtful writing - almost as if learning that you've enjoyed Brussel sprouts while gorging yourself on banana splits. It doesn't have the dramatic moral ambiguities of Dark Knight, nor the flat-out action of Iron Man (and unlike many people, I didn't like Robert Downey Jr. in the film - he seemed to play himself more than Tony Stark), but Speed Racer contains some extremely deep thinking and ideas beneath its neon surface... and is a film that deserves an audience.
Ask for it for Christmas. Trust me; it's the best gift you'll receive.
But I would like to hear what you think - please feel free to drop a line in the TV Party forums. You can even visit my blog for more writing about various other subjects. Thanks for seeing, and see you in 30 days.
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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