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Car porn to some, a freeway pileup to others

To complain about the excesses of Speed Racer would be like bitching there are too many rib eyes kept on ice at your local steak house or that there are too many references to God in the Holy Bible. Anyone who ever watched the original 1960s cartoon series (which, along with Kimba the White Lion, largely introduced Americans to Japanese anime long before it became the mainstream rage) can recall the show's frenetic pace, often zippy visuals and gaudy color schemes. In fact, those were the reasons kids tuned into the series in the first place; certainly, it wasn't to marvel at the flat characterizations or infantile dialogue.

The Wachowski Brothers, who created a whole new world with The Matrix, have now decided to push the envelope once again, this time by transforming the cheesy, on-the-cheap cartoon into a gargantuan, all-expenses-paid summer blockbuster. It's clear one of their goals is to introduce a new visual vocabulary to cinema, perhaps even influencing the direction of the medium itself. That's not likely to happen. Love it or hate it (or alternately love it and hate it), there's no denying the visual wizardry behind Speed Racer. But visual wizardry is about all the movie has going for it, and it's hard to rally the troops behind so chilly a leader.

Not that the film doesn't eventually warm up a degree or two. At first, though, it's all bombast, as we see how Speed Racer (Into the Wild's Emile Hirsch), part of a loving family whose members include Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon) and kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his pet monkey Chim Chim (older brother Rex is thought to have been killed in a car crash), dreams of nothing but racing and gets behind the wheel every chance he gets. His automotive prowess earns him an invitation to join the team owned by filthy-rich industrialist Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam, channeling Ian McDiarmid's Chancellor Palpatine from the Star Wars flicks); he declines the offer, causing an angry Royalton to retaliate by smearing the Racer family name. Determined to do the right thing, Speed joins forces with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) in an attempt to bring down Royalton and his corrupt empire.

The narrative form as we know it often doesn't seem to exist in Speed Racer. Much as Francis Coppola did with his audacious interpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Wachowskis use vintage or off-kilter cinematic techniques to tell their tale -- note the frame-wipes designed to segue from one sequence to the next. Moving far beyond Coppola, though, the siblings soup up the old-school ideas with cutting-edge CGI. Computer graphics generally aren't my bag, mainly because they look too fake when placed front and center (i.e. their employment in creating humans and creatures). But because their use here is largely relegated to inanimate objects like cars and racetracks and cellophane flowers of yellow and green (whoops, got carried away there), the result is frequently stunning. It's also something of an artistic mind-meld: Peter Max by way of Andy Warhol by way of Dr. Seuss.

Yet splashy colors and kinetic energy both have the ability to wear viewers down, especially when bombarding them for 135 minutes. That's simply too long to hold the attention of most children, making one wonder exactly what demographic the Wachowskis primarily hoped to target with this PG-rated confection. Little children are sure to get antsy, while adults need more subtext than a broad condemnation of rampant capitalism (Allam's Royalton is cut from the same soiled cloth as today's odious, profit-driven CEOs). It's only when the movie spends extended time with the Racer family that any semblance of humanity enters the picture, and that's mainly because of the generous, doughy performance by Goodman (who, it should be noted, also has the curt grunts often uttered by paternal anime characters down to a science). Also rebelling against the metallic clang of the piece are the slapstick segments, which provide a measure of levity to the often grim and inexplicably convoluted storyline -- though the antics of Spritle (admittedly faithful to the cartoon) will drive anyone over the age of 15 up the auditorium wall.

But Spritle's chimpanzee sidekick -- now he's a charmer. Sign this A-list talent to a three-picture deal immediately!

To see more photos from Speed Racer, go to www.theclogblog.com.

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