Imagine someone pouring hot, melted Starburst candies into your corneas, and you just begin to approximate the experience of “Speed Racer,” an ice-cream headache of a movie that just keeps piling on the unnatural colors, the zoom-zoom of cars that speed and leap and drift and flip, and the ADD editing that makes it all but impossible to follow what little plot there is.
Critics will no doubt be comparing this latest production by the Wachowskis (“The Matrix” trilogy) to cartoons or video games, but next to “Speed Racer,” even candy-colored Japanese creations like “Paprika” or “Katamari Damacy” resemble the grim monochrome of “Battleship Potemkin.”
If you grew up watching the Japanese TV cartoon series, you know the basics: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch as an adult, Nicholas Elia as a child) is the world’s greatest race car driver. The movie has him running afoul of nefarious corporate magnate Royalton (Roger Allam), who fixes races and tries to destroy Speed’s race car-building father, Pops Racer (John Goodman).
But with the encouragement of his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, finally putting her resemblance to an anime heroine to good use), his mother (Susan Sarandon) and his kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) — as well as the assistance of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) — Speed will make it to the Grand Prix and vindicate his late brother, Rex, who died in a mysterious racing accident.
What’s so odd about “Speed Racer” is that the entire movie looks like it was shot in front of green screens, much like the disappointing “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” While we’ve gotten used to human performers interacting with CG creations — in the “Star Wars” prequels or the “Scooby-Doo” movies, for instance — there’s something jarring about putting real people into surroundings that are so ferociously artificial, especially when the bulk of the film is made up of car races.
If the cars themselves feel like virtual avatars, there’s no delight in watching them defy the laws of physics, and no sense of fear or danger when they get threateningly close to each other. The light-cycles of “Tron” had more three-dimensionality and heft to them than does Speed’s famous Mach 5.
As for the actors — well, they’re playing cartoon characters and probably spoke most of their lines to tennis balls or pieces of masking tape. Sarandon stands out, of course, although it occasionally feels like she’s summoning past motherly roles from real movies like “Little Women” or “Lorenzo’s Oil” to get herself through the experience. Perhaps with an eye toward international markets, the Wachowskis have cast terrific European actors like Melvil Poupaud and Moritz Bleibtreu in small roles; they’ll no doubt return home with lots of interesting stories about working on insanely expensive Hollywood movies that have no script.
Watching this movie is akin to that Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” where Satan sends Homer to the Ironic Punishments room, forcing him to eat donut after donut. Homer, of course, is thrilled, but you would have to have his appetite for sugar and empty calories to make it through “Speed Racer” without needing to step outside and have a quiet, calming moment, staring at a blank wall.