Color Wheels: Speed Racer?s visuals are driven to distract.
Color Wheels: Speed Racer?s visuals are driven to distract.

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From its pedigree to its previews, the big-screen adaptation of the classic anime series Speed Racer has had summer popcorn-munchers all atwitter. Sure, it’s a family flick. But it also marks the return of the Wachowski brothers, in their first directorial effort since the final chapter of the Matrix trilogy bowed in 2003. Some of the crew that helped create that series’ much-quoted look and otherworldly movement would be onboard, along with an A-list cast including Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, and, most impressively, Emile Hirsch as Speed.

Except—well, does anyone actually remember The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions? They kinda sucked.

The realization will hit you like a thud of Neo-ian philosophy before Speed Racer even hits the halfway mark. The film begins to sputter not long after we’re introduced to a young Speed (Nicholas Elia), a cute kid too busy idolizing his brother, Rex (Scott Porter), a champion racer, and getting googly-eyed over classmate Trixie (Ariel Winter) to pay much attention to school. That’s OK, though, because racing is in his blood: Pops (John Goodman) designs cars and manages Rex while Mom (Sarandon) coos over her boys’ talents. Even after Rex is killed in a daredevil cross-country race, the family—which later regrettably includes younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), his pet monkey, and Racer Motors mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), who seems to live with them for no reason—cautiously supports Speed’s desire to compete.

Once Speed flash-forwards from a joyful kid into a traumatized if determined adult, the Wachowskis seem to abandon the idea of an imaginative, fun script in favor of leaden exposition and crazy visuals. At least in that last regard, they succeed: Speed Racer isn’t just generic eye candy, it’s optical Pop Rocks. The film is set God knows where and when—once again, digestible story details aren’t the brothers’ strong point—but the look is George Jetson and the Chocolate Factory, all hypersaturated colors and futuristic landscapes. (Except for the Racers’ home, whose décor tends toward the Brady Bunch-ian.)

The races, naturally, are where the art direction really dazzles: Speed’s white, lacquered Mach 5 car is Bat-cool enough. But it moves like the ghost of a ninja, taking turns horizontally and passing through competitors as if they were vapor. The tracks themselves are not so much oval as everywhere, roller-coaster paths that defy physics and appear to be made exclusively of LEDs. And just as your brain struggles to take in all the frenetic, brightly colored action, the Wachowskis add layers: There isn’t just a foreground and background. The heads of spectators and commentators float across the screen and over one another during a race, sometimes mingled with flashbacks telling us what’s going on in Speed’s head. It’s often too much to absorb, but it’s still a blast.

The script itself is just as overloaded, but compared to watching an explosion of imagery, parsing the story’s details just feels like work. A multitude of villains, most notably Royalton (Roger Allam), the head of a giant corporation who wants to sponsor Speed, is introduced quickly and confusingly, and the main players are given zero personality: Ricci, as the adult Trixie, and Hirsch approach humanlike depth when their characters are gently flirting with each other, but otherwise they’re as lifeless as the other one-trait roles. (Pops is suspicious, Speed drones about racing for Rex’s honor, Spritle is sidekick-annoying, and Trixie and Mom go “Yay!”) Monkey humor, shocking though it may be, doesn’t work here, and neither does a root-for-the-hero plot when the stakes aren’t exactly made clear—not to mention the hero himself not being terribly charismatic. Speed’s mother tells him that when he drives, “it’s beautiful and inspiring and everything that art should be”—everything that Speed Racer is not.

When a grade-school thug gets the community angel in trouble at the beginning of Son of Rambow, he tries to make small talk with the quiet boy who will become his unlikely best friend. “What’s your name?” Lee says. When his accomplice won’t answer, Lee grabs his notebook—full of flip-cartoons and monster drawings—reads, “Will Proudfoot,” then smacks his new pal over the head with it.

It’s one of the film’s many small, funny moments that in a flash convey more charm and insight into the characters than the entirety of Speed Racer’s two-hours-plus runtime. Son of Rambow is by writer-­director Garth Jennings, who previously helmed 2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but here is filming his first sweet-but-not-saccharine screenplay about friendship, broken homes, and most important—love of movies.

Before the two meet in ’80s England, Will (Bill Milner) spends his time praying outside of movie theaters while Lee (Will Poulter) is inside, smoking and bootlegging First Blood. Lee tricks Will into coming over to his house, convincing the innocent that the principal is going to “torture” them for breaking the school fish tank and offering to take the blame if Will gives him his watch and then bikes him home. While hiding from Lee’s older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick), and his bullying friends, Will catches a taste of Rambo on Lee’s VCR. Because Will’s family is part of a religious sect, he’s never seen a movie or TV show before. It’s not long before he’s imagining himself in a torn headband and sleeveless camouflage, ready to blow up bad guys. And he’s really psyched when Lee further demands that he help him with his own project, a home movie to enter in a nationwide amateur filmmaking competition.

Will later lies to his mother (Jessica Stevenson) about having offered to do chores for a sick friend, then returns to Lee’s house with sketches and a “Rambow” story in mind. Except he doesn’t want to play the muscular hero—he wants to be his son, hunting for his missing father. (It’s a subject the boys are both familiar with, Will’s dad having died unexpectedly and both of Lee’s parents generally absent, leaving him only the borderline abusive Lawrence to look up to.) Though their film is initially a quiet collaboration, Will is thrilled when word gets around school and others, most impressively a super-cool French exchange student named Didier (Jules Sitruk), want to be part of the movie. Will takes joy in his newfound popularity, pogoing at dances and praising everyone’s acting ability. Lee has the opposite reaction, still feeling like an outcast among the kids he’s used to bullying.

There are three marvels here, most notably newcomers Poulter and Milner, the former with a movie-perfect face for a retro playground thug and the latter recalling the saucer-eyed sweetness of Freddie Highmore. Both are incredibly natural in roles that ask them to be alternately goofy, angry, and melancholy, never poor-widdle-me sad. Those skills that are further emphasized in the film’s third gem: the boys’ movie itself. Though fantastical CGI elements, mostly part of Will’s imagination, occasionally burst onscreen throughout the story, the quite amusing movie-within-a-movie employs old-fashioned effects and ingenuity to capture battle scenes, wounds, even a flying dog. And Poulter’s and Milner’s “bad” acting in the amateur film only proves that these kids—as well as Jennings himself—are talents to watch.