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'The Matrix' Creators Meet Speed Racer

By Lisa Pease
May 30, 2008

Editor’s Note: What should you expect when the creators of “The Matrix” and “V for Vendetta” take on a children’s cartoon favorite, like “Speed Racer”?

In this review, historian (and movie buff) Lisa Pease found the mixture surprising:

I grew up watching the after school cartoons of Speed Racer, Marine Boy, and Kimba.

While I wished I had a pet like Kimba, and remembered shooting off my imaginary aqua boots ala Marine Boy on the playground, I think I loved Speed Racer the most because I loved to travel, and his races always traversed long distances and exotic locations.

I watched it so often I even had a dream in the same cartoon style.

So when I first heard Hollywood was going to do Speed Racer as a movie, my inner tomboy clapped for joy. But when I heard the Wachowski brothers were going to write and direct, I got a little nervous.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of the Wachowskis. I loved their film "The Matrix" because it described my own experience. When I started looking into the darker corners of our true history, I felt as if I was waking up in a nightmare, seeing a reality few around me shared.

I could relate to the message, which was, as I saw it, the truth will free you to solve actual problems instead of leaving you enslaved in a pleasant but false reality.

But then there were the Matrix II and III films, which seemed to revel more in special effects than story.

They redeemed themselves in my eyes with “V for Vendetta.”

I fell in love with the man in the mask, a victim who used his unnatural strength to awaken the natural strength in others, who led the public from being trapped in their individual fears to finding their power when they shed those fears and took a collective stand.

But Speed Racer? What possible deeper message could the Wachowski's bring to such a piece of fluff? Would it just be all special effects and no story?

Happily, the answer is no. While the story is thin and the characters deliberately cartoonish, I found myself pleasantly engaged and delighted to find a little protein at the center of all the eye candy.

And let's face it. The film is largely eye candy. If you feel at all color deprived, this movie will satisfy you immensely.

The visuals are unlike anything I've ever seen on film before. The art alone is worth the price of admission.

Standing Up to Power

The heart of the story is a simple one: a family business is trying to compete in a racing world that is dominated by the megacorporation Royalton Industries.

The head of Royalton tries to lure Speed Racer away from his father's team with promises of riches and fame. When Speed refuses, Royalton's owner (played by the indomitable Roger Allam) tells him the big races are fixed, and that he'll never win a race if he doesn't join them.

Speed considers giving up. If the race is always fixed, why even try?

I couldn’t help thinking at this point of the 2000 election. I was about to see the film “Recount,” to relive that awful nightmare of an almost completed election, one in which the Supreme Court essentially shut down the counting of votes which would have led to Gore's victory.

[See Robert Parry's excellent summary of how the news media found out that, had all the votes been counted, Gore would have won Florida and the presidency.]

I've tried for years to involve progressive activists in the cause of election reform.

But the most common arguments I hear are these: 1) if elections are not being stolen, raising this issue might discourage people from voting, and 2) if elections are being stolen, what is the point of trying to fight this? They have all the power and we'll never win.

The strong message of “Speed Racer” is that, even if you know the fight to be hopeless, you must still go out and fight the good fight, do the best you can do, because you never know what comes of your efforts until you make them.

By never giving up, Speed finds a way around, and through, and ends up doing the unthinkable. He manages to unrig the race.

And are some real races rigged?

After I returned from the theater, I did a little research and found that no less than a two-time NASCAR champion accused NASCAR of manipulating races through debris cautions.

NASCAR Champion Tony Stewart, on a radio show in 2007, likened NASCAR to the World Wrestling Foundation, which stages its fights.

How did NASCAR control outcomes? By throwing debris caution flags at suspicious points in the race, Stewart said. Debris cautions cause a rebunching of the field, which gives laggards a chance to catch up.

NASCAR vigorously denied throwing any unnecessary flags, and Stewart, after being chastised by NASCAR, retracted his comments. Coincidentally or not, the number of debris cautions appeared to some commentators to drop dramatically after Stewart spoke up.

The Movie’s Pace

The film lagged a bit in the middle with a few talky scenes. But overall, the story, which was told in a slightly nonlinear fashion, flew by. Certainly the visuals flew by, sometimes at a dizzying pace.

The film is well cast. Emile Hirsch brings what could have been a very flat Speed Racer quite engagingly to life.

Matthew Fox is perfect as Racer X. Susan Sarandon is wonderful as Speed's mother, and Christina Ricci plays Speed's girlfriend Trixie. John Goodman plays Pops, the father and designer of Speed's souped up racecar, the Mach 5.

The comic relief is provided by Speed's younger brother Spritle and his monkey pal Chim Chim. Spritle is played to great effect by the spunky and talented young actor Paulie Litt.

Fans of the original series will feel right at home, even with the live action and deeply saturated palette. Familiar shots and a familiar soundtrack that includes that famous chh-chh-chh-chh sound when the car jumps will warm your inner child's heart.

If you're in need of a glorious distraction, a quick roundtrip to childhood, or some outrageously colorful inspiration, go enjoy “Speed Racer.” Believe me, you've never seen anything like it.

Lisa Pease is a historian who has studied the Kennedy assassinations and other enduring political mysteries.

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