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Review: 'Speed Racer' rich in color, poor in spirit

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  • Review: "Speed Racer" wonderful eye candy, lousy movie
  • Colors and effects are astonishing, but there's no plot, no character
  • Film is based on 1960s Japanese-made series
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- "Speed Racer," the Wachowski Brothers' first film as writer-directors since "The Matrix Reloaded" five years ago, is a dizzying pop-art confection.

Inspired by the 1960s Japanese-made animated series, the movie integrates live action and kaleidoscopic digital effects to create a highly artificial, color-saturated fantasy world where race cars come equipped with retractable weaponry and battle it out like spinning tops (or the "beyblades" popularized by more recent manga).

Twelve-year-old boys should be wowed, but for the rest of us, it will depend on your appetite for eye candy. "Speed Racer" is sweet, but decidedly overlong and determinedly innocuous.

Weaving between past and present with rare finesse, the opening scenes establish that we're entering a little boy's daydream. Speed Racer (played as a kid by Nicholas Elia, and subsequently by Emile Hirsch) is struggling with a math equation when his mind begins to wander. As well it might: Pops (John Goodman) designs race cars and older brother Rex drives them -- brilliantly. No wonder it's all Speed can think about.

When Rex perishes in a crash, it's a foregone conclusion that Speed will follow in his tire tracks. But even as a young man he soon discovers the sports world is more complex than he imagined: He's schmoozed by the CEO of Royalton (Roger Allam), a big money corporate sponsor. When Speed rejects his offer, Royalton angrily insists the sport is a sham and he'll never win a race.

The Wachowskis like to pay lip service to subversive ideas in their scripts (which also include "V for Vendetta" and rewrites on last year's Nicole Kidman bomb "The Invasion"), and on some level "Speed Racer" is clearly meant to have a bit of "The Matrix" for kids, with suggestions of a paranoid postmodern fable about what Royalton calls "the power and unassailable might of money." Video Get a feel for the world of "Speed Racer" »

Mostly, though, the Wachowskis just get a kick out of replicating the splashy, wide-eyed innocence of the anime universe, which is itself an even more idealized image of the nuclear family than you find in the American cartoons that influenced the Japanese.

The Racer brood extends to Speed's girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his mischievous younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), the pet chimpanzee Chim Chim, and even a resident mechanic, Sparky (Kick Gurry). Video Watch Hirsch and Ricci answer questions about the film »

Although it's not set in a specific time and place, the environment, the clothes and the language -- "Cool beans" -- is redolent of the sitcom suburbia that was a product of the Eisenhower years: "The Jetsons" via Roy Lichtenstein. The way the Wachowskis shoot this world it might as well be a rear projection, but it's a rear projection they evidently find appealing. It is possible to feel nostalgia for a lost utopia, the future we used to believe in that never quite materialized.

The races are dizzying switchback affairs, closer to virtual kung fu than NASCAR. The longest is a cross-country rally/demolition derby which seems indebted to another late '60s cartoon, "The Wacky Racers." In one typically oddball gag, a rival driver attempts to knock out Speed by catapulting a beehive into his path.

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But for all the movie's visual panache -- and there's plenty -- there are precious few laughs and little suspense. It's almost impossible to care about Speed or the outcome of his races. Not because he's not heroic, but because he's as synthetic as everything else in this virtual entertainment. The old cartoon was frequently silly and empty, too, but at least it was over in a half-hour.

"Speed Racer" is rated PG and runs -- and runs and runs -- 135 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.

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