The Wachowski brothers have officially left this mortal coil. Any suggestion that a live-action take on a frivolous '60s anime series would represent a downshift in ambition after the Matrix trilogy is dispelled within the first few seconds of Speed Racer, which seems to take the concept of 600 km/hr. racing cars as aesthetic inspiration. Painting with CGI, the Wachowskis have constructed a candy-colored future so wholly artificial that the humans appear out of place, grafted crudely onto a world that's evolved past them. Granted, Hollywood blockbusters like 300 and Beowulf have recently expanded the potential of digital effects, but with nothing like the aggression of Speed Racer, which is borderline-experimental in the way it challenges the limits of perception. It's forward-thinking, visionary, and much of the time unwatchable.
With a name that really suits only one possible occupation, young Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) dreams of following in his legendary brother Rex's footsteps and leading his scrappy racing family back to glory. Though haunted by Rex's tragic demise during the cross-country, anything-goes race called The Crucible, Speed shows enough natural talent to draw a lucrative offer from Royalton Motors, a corporate giant intent on crushing all comers. When Speed turns down the offer, he and his team—parents John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, girlfriend Christina Ricci, his mischievous little brother, and a pet monkey named Chim Chim—try to go the independent route. As diabolical forces conspire to keep him off the track, Speed joins forces with the mysterious "Racer X," a one-time rival turned unlikely ally.
In the early going, the whiz-bang editing and searing primary colors in Speed Racer work like a sugar rush, but the crash from all that overstimulation is enough to reduce grown men into sobbing infants. The Wachowskis may be guilty of being too far ahead of the curve: Maybe children one or two generations down the road will be able to process 135 minutes of manic, kitschy inanity, but for now, it goes down in one big, indigestible lump. For as much control as they exert over technique, the Wachowskis let the tone get away from them, unable to reconcile Speed Racer's bright, frivolous cartoon roots with a heavy-headed—and baldly hypocritical—message about the little guy standing up to his corporate masters. Here's a rare case where the term "groundbreaking" isn't necessarily a compliment.