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Originally published May 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 9, 2008 at 10:54 AM

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Movie review

Flashy "Speed Racer" stalls at the finish line

The Wachowski brothers' "Speed Racer" is colorful and energetic — and ultimately disappointing.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

"Speed Racer," with Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam. Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, based on the television series created by Tatsuo Yoshida. 135 minutes. Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence and language. Opens at midnight tonight at several theaters; also opens in IMAX format tomorrow at Pacific Science Center's Boeing IMAX Theater.

Maybe you've often wondered, during life's quiet moments when one ponders such things, what it would be like to be trapped inside a video game that goes on and on, pelting you with bright colors and zooming vehicles. Maybe you've thought, while endlessly watching "Speed Racer" reruns on DVD, that this half-hour cartoon really would translate nicely into a two-hours-plus big-screen feature. Maybe you've more than once sat transfixed by the wonder of an extra-gaudy floaty pen, thinking, "Why don't movies look like this?" If so, dear reader, have I got a movie for you. Unfortunately, there isn't much in it for the rest of us.

"Speed Racer," the first post-"Matrix" writing/directing outing by Larry and Andy Wachowski, certainly has energy to burn; it's the movie equivalent of a rambunctious preschool kid wildly scrawling, with an extra-large Crayola box, on a white wall. What it doesn't have is much of a reason for being. (Watching it, I wondered whether a feature-length version of "Wacky Races" might be on the horizon.) True, the original "Speed Racer" TV series, created in Japan by Tatsuo Yoshida, has anime-fan cachet and a cult following, but the Wachowskis have done it no favors by stretching it out like a piece of Day-Glo taffy. I brought along a childhood fan of the series to the screening; he went home disappointed.

For the non-"Speed Racer" initiated: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, nicely cowlicked) is a person, and that is indeed his real name. His family, who runs a racecar-building business, includes older brother Rex Racer, who died in a car race long ago; Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops Racer (John Goodman); younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt); and chimp Chim-Chim, whose status in the family seems to be somewhere between mascot and son. (No one ever explains why the Racers have a chimp, which I'm told is quite true to the original series. For the record, real-life chimps Willy and Kenzie do a bang-up job playing the ever-cheery Chim-Chim, but then again, they had the advantage of not having to read the script.)

So, there's some sort of plot involving Speed turning down a lucrative offer from the head of corporate baddie Royalton Industries (Roger Allam, last seen as Elizabeth II's anxious assistant in "The Queen"), uncovering various evil deeds involving the racing community and setting out on a grueling cross-country race, accompanied by the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), to save the world and avenge his brother and, I don't know, advance the cause of primary colors. The characters offer various bits of racing-tinged folk wisdom, like, "Stop steering and start driving," or, from Mom to Speed, "I go to the races to watch you make art."

All of this is secondary to the film's wildly colorful look, filled with fast cars, quick cuts, computer-enhanced weirdness and close-ups that randomly waft across the screen (it's that floaty-pen thing). It's unique and diverting — for the first 20 minutes or so. One scene, in which young Speed first spots girlfriend Trixie (played, as an adult, by Christina Ricci), is particularly captivating: In a park whose grass is that particular vivid shade of green that seems mugged by yellow, he sees her and the bright bed of flowers behind him softly blurs into little multicolored hearts.

But ultimately, the colors and speed become familiar, and we're left with just another movie without enough plot to sustain it. The actors seem lost in a gumball dispenser; the audience, for the most part, might well feel the same way.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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