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Speed Racer

Emile Hirsch rules the road as Speed Racer.
warner brothers pictures

Converting a fondly remembered cartoon series — one of the first Japanese animes syndicated on American TV — into a prospective franchise, the Matrix masters, Larry and Andy Wachowski, have taken another step toward the total cyborganization of the cinema.

Even more than most summer-season f/x fests, Speed Racer is a live-action/animation hybrid and, what's more, proud of it. Bright, shiny and button-cute, the movie is a self-consciously tawdry trifle — a celluloid analog to the ribbon-bedecked, mirrored gewgaws that clever European settlers hoped to swap with the savages for Manhattan Island.

What you see is what you get. "Production design" is a poor term to describe Owen Paterson's avidly garish look. Gaudier than a Hindu-temple roof, louder than the Las Vegas night, Speed Racer is a cathedral of glitz. The movie projects a Candy Land topography of lava-lamp skies and Hello Kitty clouds — using a beyond-Bollywood color scheme wherein telephones are blood-orange, jet planes electric fuchsia and ultra-turquoise the new black.

Call it Power Kitsch, Neo-Jetsonism or Icon-D: This film could launch a movement. A dream (or perhaps nightmare) team of pop artists might have collaborated on Speed Racer's mise-en-scène. The futuristic multi-hued skyscrapers seem a figment of Kenny Scharf's imagination; the glazed female leads might be Jeff Koons sculptures sporting Takashi Murakami accessories. And that's just the "Sunday Styles" stuff. Once the various gizmobiles accelerate to warp speed on roller-coaster racetracks seemingly conceived by Dr. Seuss, the screen reconstitutes itself as a Bridget Riley vortex or a mad geometric abstraction of Kenneth Noland racing stripes.

For me, this carousel, which clocks in at a leisurely 135 minutes, is more fun to describe than to ride. Blithely non-linear for its first half-hour, the past merging with the present as shifting backgrounds segue to flashbacks, Speed Racer has a narrative at once simpleminded and senseless, albeit touchingly faithful to Tatsuo Yoshida's original cartoons. Here, too, the eponymous hero (Emile Hirsch) — child of the auto-inventor Pops Racer (John Goodman, man-mountain of goodwill) and Mom Racer (self-Stepfordized Susan Sarandon) — is born to drive the family Mach 5, particularly once older brother Rex is seemingly vaporized in a wreck. And drive Speed does — if not quite as well as the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).

Generically speaking, Speed Racer will never be confused with a no-frills dynamo like Howard Hawks's The Crowd Roars (or even his fascinatingly flaccid mid-'60s racing hallucination Red Line 7000). For all the excited color commentary, the races lack drama. Each is an autonomous, enjoyably lurid tinsel-confetti blur, with crack-ups as convoluted as they are inconsequential. As choreographed as the action is, it lacks only printed sound effects — WHAM! BLAM! POW! — to sign-post the Wachowskis' facetiousness.

After the relative failures of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions and the widespread disapproval inspired by their tastelessly anarcho-terrorist V for Vendetta, the brothers have opted for family-friendly fluff. In place of irony, there's a sprinkling of camp sentimentality. Speed is abetted by plucky girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, reliving her lysergic past as Addams Family ingenue), who, Louise Brooks bob set off by a pair of red barrettes, is even more of a porcelain doll than Mom. And, as back in the day, the clan includes a tubby little brother (Paulie Litt) with a bratty pet chimp. Everyone has a role, even if it's only a matter of creative lurking. As Pops and his engineer, Sparky (Kick Gurry), rebuild the Mach 5 for the Grand Prix, Mom makes the peanut-butter sandwiches. No Oracle she.

Like The Matrix, Speed Racer gives the not-unrealistic impression of taking place inside a computer. But love, hate or ignore it, The Matrix proposed a social mythology. Speed Racer is simply a mishmash that, among other things, intermittently parodies the earlier film's pretensions: His path plotted by a mysterious cabal, Speed Racer could be the One. Indeed, in the grand first-installment climax, messianic frenzy merges with market research as the young racer's "upset" victory bids not only to change the face of high-stakes race-car driving, but the nature of reality itself: "It's a whole new world!" This hopeful self-promotion is especially ridiculous in that Speed Racer ostentatiously traffics in left-wing allegory.

The villain (Roger Allam) is a slavering tycoon, while Speed Racer is, as his mother tells him, an artist. In the movie, racing is itself a racket — the effluvium of decaying Capital within the Matrix. Multi-nationals sponsor drivers, fix races and use the sport to drive up the market price of their stock. Ideologically anti-corporate, their previous productions aspired to be something more than mindless sensation; Speed Racer is thrilled to be less. It's the delusions minus the grandeur.