Let me take this opportunity to express regret for any misgivings about Speed Racer I may have previously communicated.

One week after Iron Man was released, I was in a bit of a haze, but I remember the internal conflict that kept me from seeing Speed Racer in theaters: the marketing is sending mixed messages, the reviews are terrible, the trailer makes it look like a Willy Wonka NASCAR fever dream.

All of that was a mistake.

Speed Racer is a visual marvel, one of the most hyper kinetic, viscerally exciting films of the year. Forget eye candy. This movie is eye heroin.

Things get off to a slow start, but only because there is so much exposition to cover. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how the young Speed Racer thinks of nothing but getting behind the wheel of a T-180 and dominating over the competition like his big brother Rex. Family tragedy threatens to derail the Racer family legacy, but nothing can quell the indomitable spirit of racing. Speed beings to make a name for himself out on the track.

In the present, Speed’s talent has attracted the attention of Royalton Industries – a giant business conglomerate that wants to add Speed to its stable of racers. Conflict is set into motion when the proudly independent Speed declines Royalton’s offer and it is revealed to him that racing is merely a front for business deals and technological advances. Races don’t matter, drivers don’t matter and any competition of merit has been fixed since the 1940’s.

I only recount the details of the plot to frame them within the context of how little they matter. These details only serve to tie together the film’s three large set pieces – the races themselves.

Granted, a movie strictly about racing would be pretty boring so it makes sense that the filmmakers tried to put a little meat on these bones. But they tend to overdo it. And, for a kids film, spend entirely too much time inflating the value of what Speed brings to racing as an incorruptible force.

Several times in the film, Speed’s driving ability is compared to that of an artist, essentially contrasting the soullessness of corporate influence to the beauty and innovation of the artistic spirit. It’s kind of an odd statement to make considering how much of the film’s $120 million budget is literally splashed onto the screen.

But once I got past the second act, several of the criticisms I had set aside peeled away and disappeared into the slipstream. Even though Speed’s victory is assured, the film does a great job of drawing out the tension and injecting nervous anticipation into his final race. The film ended with me feeling proud for his accomplishment and in the same celebratory mood as Speed and the rest of his family.

Considering everything that transpired on screen was merely the figment of some Ritalin-starved animator, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

I don’t mean to overlook the human component of Speed Racer. The casting for this film is excellent from top to bottom. Emile Hirsch plays Speed with the appropriate amount of innocence and competition. John Goodman was born to play Pops and manages to wring some emotion out of what could have otherwise been a stodgy family conflict. Christina Ricci is a delight as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (I move to make it a law that Ricci keep her hair in a permanent bob) and even Matthew Fox comes off well behind the deathly serious (and slightly wooden) exterior of Racer X. I even found Paulie Litt as Speed’s little brother Spritle endearing when I usually cast disdain over over-expressive child actors. Keep an eye on this kid. He’s the new Spencer Breslin.

Considering the technical innovation on display in the film, it’s curious that the DVD extras are reduced to two anemic behind-the-scenes offerings. If there was any question about whether or not Speed Racer was a kids film, it’s answered in the feature “Sprittle in the Big Leagues,” which features Paulie Litt as he wanders around the Berlin studio where Speed Racer is being filmed, learning about the film making process.

Interesting facts in the feature? We learn that Speed Racer took 60 days to film and that Emile Hirsch wears shorts inside the gimbals of the Mach 5 instead of his full racing suit costume!

The other feature “Speed Racer: Supercharged” gives an overview of the different cars created for the film using spinning 3D models and a cacophony of technobabble to describe the various engines, weaponry and technology packed into every car.

Incidentally, directing siblings The Wachowski’s are nowhere to be seen in either feature. Suffice to say, Speed Racer did not get the appropriate treatment it deserved in terms of delivering a more detailed look inside the development of the film.

It’s hard to imagine any film being so thoroughly drenched in digital glop that it could spawn a whole new sub-genre of film. Movies like Hostel and Saw helped coin the term “torture porn.” Speed Racer could easily be the catalyst for “CG porn.”

For fans of movies with a unique visual identity, there’s lots to love in Speed Racer. Plan on taking advantage of your DVD’s “pause” button when dissecting the level of detail, color and fury squeezed into every shot. Those of you looking for a satisfying story are probably best left to the original cartoon series. But give Speed Racer a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Speed Racer is available to own on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand. For more information, check out the official site at www.speedracerthemovie.com

↓ Transcript
Theater Hopper reviews Speed Racer on DVD.