Based on the 1960s Japanese animated TV series, and brought to the screen in a primary-colors splash of live-action, CG, and green-screen effects by Andy and Larry Wachowski - in their first directing job since 2003's Matrix sequels - Speed Racer makes absolutely no effort to root itself in the real world.
Instead, the universe of Speed Racer offers futuro cityscapes and neon-limned architecture, and race arenas that look like Las Vegas gone wild.
Meanwhile, the suburban homestead of the Racer clan - Speed (Emile Hirsch), little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), Mom (Susan Sarandon), and Dad (John Goodman) - is a populuxe pastiche of midcentury modern and 21st-century tech, with a paint chart that'll blow your head off.
I can't imagine what this thing does to your retinas in Imax - and Speed Racer opens on close to 100 such mega-format screens (including UA King of Prussia, locally).
Hirsch - last seen in the 180-degrees different Into the Wild - plays the talented young driver haunted by the memory of his older brother, Rex, a racing champ who went down in a blaze of crumpled metal and scandal. With the support of his parents (a father who designs race cars, a mother who makes PB&Js), the eager encouragement of his pipsqueak sibling and a pet chimp, and an assist or two from a trusty Aussie mechanic (Kick Gurry), Speed takes to the track, shunning a lucrative sponsorship deal from the yellow-toothed tycoon E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam).
While Royalton plots and schemes to defeat and humiliate Speed, Speed's girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), provides counsel - and go-get-'em grins and modelistic poses. And then there's Racer X (Matthew Fox), a masked figure who gives guru sound bites. For example: "You don't climb into a T-180 to be a driver. You do it because you're driven."
In a nod to its origins, Speed Racer features a punky Japanese rival driver played by the Asian pop star Rain, his dishy girlfriend Horuko (Yu Nan), an Asian industrialist (Hiroyuki Sanada), and a nifty ninja kickfest - one of the few action set pieces that don't involve careening down the track, or defying the G-forces in a cross-country car rally.
The brothers Wachowski are at their inventive best spinning narrative details with stop-and-start montages - there's an explanation of the identity of Racer X near movie's end that works with the economy and visual dazzle of a classic silent-screen sequence. And there's really no "acting" to speak of in Speed Racer - it's more like mugging for the camera, a steering wheel prop in hand, with the knowledge that several thousand digital renderers will fill in the blanks. But Hirsch manages to convey some angst ("I'm caught in a tailspin - I'm so confused right now") as he turns his head in profile, his modified Elvis pompadour about to be encased by the crash helmet with the big M on it. That's for Mifune Motors, by the way, from the original Japanese 'toon.
Speed Racer *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. With Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox, Paulie Litt and Roger Allam. Distributed by Warner Bros. Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (mild profanity, cartoon violence)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.