Speed Racer -or- In Defense of Fun

Here there be spoilers. You don’t get any fancy pictures with funny captions today, mis amigos, because copyright laws. Write your congressperson.

Speed Racer–the 2008 film by Matrix creators the Wachowskis–is by no means a “good” movie, in any traditional sense. It isn’t shot especially well (most of the CGI scenes are excessively cartoony and poorly-meshed with the actual actors), it isn’t particularly clever (barring what was at the time of first viewing a hilarious line by Christina Ricci regarding ninjas), and its message is a little shoehorned-in at the last moment. Its time-jumping storytelling and somewhat economically convoluted plot by the main antagonist (played by a wonderfully campy Roger Allam) make following the conflict in the story too difficult for a younger audience and too boring for an older audience. It isn’t really written with the fan of the original series in mind–and a good thing too, since I’ve never finished more than one episode–and since nobody talks faster than their lips move it isn’t relevant even to its own influences on popular culture. The acting is generally good, except that Emile Hirsch (who is, by the way, a good actor; he was certainly the best part of The Darkest Hour) delivers his lines as if half-asleep (technically canon; it’s how he starts the storyline proper).

A quick look across my movie collection will reveal that I’m much more a fan of “fun” movies than I am your traditional “artistically interesting” movies–Inception, How to Train Your Dragon, and Hot Fuzz grace the top of my list (though Hot Fuzz is brilliant in its own way, more on that eventually). I am no stranger to “fun” when it comes to cinema.

So believe me when I say that Speed Racer is, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve ever had watching a movie.

It’s predictable. It’s hammy. It’s campy and too colorful and the CGI meshes so poorly with the characters that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s going on. The angsty “character arc” that Speed traverses, in a supposed parallel with the not-really-as-dead-as-you-might-think Rex Racer, is shoved in near the end for dramatic tension that doesn’t quite work. But it is, in its fashion, brilliant.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the film where the characters are fighting against the “Look at us, we’re mobsters!” group of thematically-linked villans. They are in the mountains in some miscellaneous country, and snow is falling. The fight scene shows overlapping battles between small groups of characters, with the camera whirling around so fast Michael Bay’s head would explode. The snowfall, the whirling, and the punching and kicking combine, in what may or may not be intentionally brilliant cinematography, to form comic book-like speed lines as the characters move.

And that’s all you really need to know. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t good by any usual standard. Where it falls short of cleverness it dives headfirst into a kind of gut-level instinctual hilarity. Where it’s overly cartoony it comes across as playing to an aesthetic rather than poor CGI work. When the message is forced or outright nonexistent, it instead is transformed into the kind of “aw shucks” attitude you used to be able to find at the end of Saturday morning cartoons about sharing and recycling, like if Captain Planet produced a movie about race cars.

It’s the silliest comic book you can think of covered with ink and slapped onto the screen. What oozes out from under the matted pages is pure silly fun, and I love it. It’s so simple and–in a way–pure that repeated viewings only remind me of how much I enjoy it. There’s nothing new or clever to see, no new depths to plumb, no new themes to unearth. It’s just fun.

And that’s okay. Who cares if the main character put as much energy into his role as would a cardboard cutout of himself, when the final race scene still makes my pulse pound every time? When every frame is packed so full of “who cares, it’s fun!”, it’s hard not to become drawn in by the infectious enthusiam the movie has for itself. If you look past all the reasons you shouldn’t like it, you’ll find the one reason you should, what is in my opinion the only reason to watch any movie ever: pure, distilled enjoyment.

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