Ok, so I finally saw the Wachowski Bros’ Speed Racer the other day.
Holy. Cow. This was one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I know how else to describe it. It was, hands down, the best adaptation of a comic or cartoon to movie EVER.
Now, before I get tons of hate mail, let me explain what I mean. I do not mean that it was the best comic/cartoon based film I’ve ever seen. I do not mean it is the best film of it’s kind. In fact, I don’t even mean I liked it all that much. I did find it entertaining, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a great movie.
What it is, though, is a great spectacle. You almost can’t take your eyes off of it. It is such a huge leap in the construction of these types of "green screen" spectaculars that I think it needs it’s own classification. It’s not really live action (although the actors are not modified). It definitely isn’t one of those zombie filled motion capture movies, and it certainly isn’t animated. But the entire thing is alive- the actors, the backgrounds, the cars. The way they treat the overall world the character’s inhabit outdoes video games. It really is something amazing. as it is totally like a cartoon (and a crazy cartoon at that) and yet everything has a very grounded feel, as if the cars all behave according to actual physics, if not the physics we must obey ourselves.
This is the movie that Dick Tracy wanted to be. And it is a perfect translation of the old Speed Racer cartoons: all of the conceits and touches are included, and the characters are spot on. The casting is great, and the plot is just fine as a logical distillation of the essence of Speed Racer. It’s the best adaptation because this IS the cartoon. All of it. The costumes haven’t been changed. The cars are the same. The dialogue and characterizations are amazingly intact (especially Spritle and Chim-Chim).
But Speed Racer just isn’t that much to hang a movie on. I know it has fans, but there isn’t much to the old cartoons that allow the universe to be fleshed out and to breathe with the importance that justifies this kind of a budget. I didn’t see it in theaters (although now that I have seen it I regret that mightily) but I knew s soon as it was announced that no one would see it in theaters, at least not enough people to make it a hit. The property has been revived many times in the past, and it never lasts long as cartoons or toys. And that’s a shame as I think this deserves to be seen.
What the Wachowski’s have done right here is number one to treat everything with the same weight they did the Matrix films. No matter how goofy the staging or the effects, no matter how unreal the camera moves or the races, all of the characters act as if they are doing very real, and very serious things. The actors never once wink at the audience or crack a smile toward the camera to let us know that they know it’s all one big joke. But they also updated what needed to be updated, all the while keeping in mind the spirit of the original. (Dick Tracy just tried to slavishly copy the comic designs and matched them with a truly garish color scheme, but threw out EVERYTHING that the actual comic strip was about.)
Sure, this is also pretty much what Chris Nolan did for the year’s biggest film (actually the decade’s biggest film): The Dark Knight. But it’s a lot easier to say you’re going to hire the top tier "serious" actors and put everyone is "real" clothes and then go dark. It’s amazingly tough to pull the same thing off in day glo colors and cartoon costumes. This actually isn’t a terribly new idea, but most people just don’t get it. The Godfather took gangster B-movies and treated them like top class A pictures. The characters in Jaws felt like real people, not like the crazy stereotypes of a Deep Blue Sea. And the reason no one has been able to recapture the feeling of Raiders of the Lost Ark (including the new installment of Indiana Jones) is that in Raiders the characters acted like real people in extraordinary circumstances.
Again, though, none of those were animated cartoons. I think the most amazing thinking about all this is that WB spent nearly $200 million bringing this to life. No matter how well made this was going to be, it was never going to bring in that kind of money. What I would do now if I was WB president Alan Horn, though, is send the Wachowskis a DVD of all the Fleischer Superman cartoons and tell them to run with a period film for the next Superman. Hire a solid writer to help them on the script, who knows what makes the character tick (Geoff Johns, perhaps or maybe Grant Morrison). And then get out of their way. Because the a Superman film with this kind of thinking behind it, and this level of cinematic mastery, could finally give us a REAL superhero film. Not a dark, "guy in leather" type thing we’ve been getting all this time, but a real comic come to life, that doesn’t mistake a comic for a cartoon.