Monday, June 02, 2008

‘Speed Racer’: Candy-colored car caper

(Published May 30, Philippine Daily Inquirer-Entertainment)

By Oliver M. Pulumbarit

Bursting with candy colors and deliberately artificial-looking, “Speed Racer” is a big popcorn movie revolving around racing and fast cars that, strangely, has some problems with pacing. Filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) offer their take on the beloved ‘60s cartoon series, a fun and engaging enough new world that’s drenched in trippy special effects and made lively by hypnotic cinematography.

But those eventually wane when things slow down, particularly when its family-friendly drama bits turn sappy and didactic. Not that it’s entirely that way. The character development of the driven main hero Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is done captivatingly, his childhood memories imaginatively entwined together with his present-day angst and brooding personality. Those flashbacks are creatively presented on the screen, comic book-like in its utilization of foreground and background imagery.

“Speed Racer” re-introduces an oddly cool family, the Racers, whose love for racing and cars is established early on and repeatedly. Pops (John Goodman) makes the snazziest, fastest automobiles in his garage, while Mom (Susan Sarandon) is ever-supportive of the guys and can handle anything with her expertise in diplomacy, cooking pancakes and making sandwiches. And Spritle (Paulie Litt), Speed’s younger brother who’s more into food than cars, is the impish but loyal fan.

Speed’s hero-worship of a deceased older brother and racing champ, Rex (Scott Porter), still drives him to compete. The promising driver attracts the attention of Royalton Industries’ head honcho (Roger Allam), who tries to lure the young man into joining his roster of cared-for “thoroughbreds.” But sure enough, Speed politely declines, preferring to stay independent. Subsequently, the naïve Racer discovers some disheartening truths behind the business, and must stave off some threats (like gun-toting henchmen and yes, ninjas!) with the help of his family and butt-kicking girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci).

It’s a comprehensibly told story, although it tends to wallow and linger too much every time it touches on Speed’s pathos. He’s mopey almost all of the time, but thankfully, that’s contrasted by Trixie’s bubbliness and reckless optimism. Pops, meanwhile, comes off as a well-meaning stage father. The Racer family has endured the loss of one of their own, and the father-son arguments make sense.

Still, it’s about 30 minutes too long. The flashy racing bouts, however, are a welcome visual treat, reminding one of the fun and rambunctious Pod Race in “Star Wars Episode 1.”

The zooming cars dueling on hazardous tracks are a sight to see, but the races soon become numbing. The special effects are something to admire, making the impossible incredibly real, even when faster-paced scenes or techno-meshed backgrounds defy the laws of physics.

The humor is odd, but your kid companions will undoubtedly get it and enjoy it.

Despite some screeching moments, “Speed Racer” is still worth seeing. But don’t rush.

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