Last night I saw a misunderstood cinematic masterpiece: Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008). It's gotten really bad reviews, but I had more fun at Speed Racer than I have had in years.
In the opening sequence, the filmmakers teach us how to watch this movie. We see the young Speed Racer daydreaming in school about race car driving, but his imagination is represented as an image of himself among his own childlike drawings of cars: Speed is inside a cartoon. And that sums up the movie. It's a cartoon with live action people inside it. (There is a similar sequence later with Speed's little brother Spritle imagining himself inside the cartoon he is watching on TV.)
As a cartoon, then, many of the criticisms of Speed Racer miss the mark. I don't even bother to take seriously the complaints of old people who got a headache from the movie or thought it was edited too fast. People said the same things about Star Wars 30 years ago, and now that movie actually seems pretty slow! It seems like a better criticism that the movie's philosophy (the same kind of anti-corporate neo-Marxism as discussed in my post on The Matrix) is simplistic and obvious. But once you realize that Speed Racer is a cartoon, this criticism evaporates. You don't watch a 30s screwball comedy and complain that there is not enough kung-fu in it; and you don't watch a cartoon and complain that its characters and message are too black-and-white (or in primary colors, as it were). I actually found the moral clarity of the movie refreshing. Exposing us to moral ambiguity is an important function of art, but we do need heroic role-models, too.
So Speed Racer is doing the same sort of thing The Matrix was doing. But whereas The Matrix was a live action version of anime movies directed at an older teen audience (most notably Ghost in the Shell), Speed Racer is the kind of cartoon we watched in elementary school (a point that's hard to miss with all of Spritle's talk of "cooties"). I've heard Speed Racer compared to movies like Dick Tracy and Sin City, (neither of which, by the way, are nearly as cinematically creative and interesting as Ang Lee's Hulk -- another misunderstood masterpiece -- which recreates not only the look of a comic book but also the experience of reading one), but those comparisons seem wrong. Both of those movies were based on print comics while The Matrix and Speed Racer are based on animation. (It is significant that the opening sequence of Speed Racer has the young Speed drawing his own flip book animation. It is in that cartoon that he imagines himself. Later, the walls of the Grand Prix race track are decorated with zebra images which seem to be animated when seen from the drivers' perspective. This is an homage to a 19th Century animation device called a zoetrope.)
In some respects, Speed Racer is doing the same sort of thing attempted by the recent Disney musical Enchanted (Lima, 2007) -- but without the irony. I actually found Enchanted unwatchable. Playful intertextuality is one thing, but Enchanted was just too cynical for my taste. The film assumed that we wouldn't be able to enjoy an old-school fairy tale cartoon without a heaping helping of cinematic deconstruction. I realize that the movie was ultimately trying to help us get back the childlike innocence that allowed us to love the original Disney princess cartoons, but its mode of referencing earlier movies was too ironic and made it impossible to take the movie seriously. Indeed, that's exactly the problem: it didn't take itself seriously enough. The problem is not that it was a comedy; the problem is that, in Disney terms, Enchanted didn't "believe in itself" -- so how could I believe in it? I don't need to be winked at in order to enjoy fairy-tale romance.
Contrast Enchanted with postmodern satires like Scream and Starship Troopers which manage to work both as a spoof of a particular genre as well as an actual example of that genre. (Shrek might fit in this category, too.) In other words, Scream is a spoof of a horror movie while at the same time, still being a horror movie -- as opposed to Scary Movie which is just a spoof. This is a fine line to walk, and how exactly these movies pulled off this cinematic miracle is unclear to me. What is clear is that Enchanted didn't know the same trick.
There are, however, other recent movies which do manage to succeed in the way Speed Racer does. Consider Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies. These movies speak in a different voice than the postmodern satires like Scream and Starship Troopers. Instead of spoofs, here we have hyper-real "movie movies" as Tarantino calls them -- taking stuff that "only happens in the movies" and then turning it up to 11. These movies reference earlier movie clichés and (especially in Tarantino's hands) even deconstruct them, but they manage to do this lovingly and without "winking" and so without the irony of a spoof -- irony which in the case of Enchanted ends up draining the magic from a genre we loved as kids (and, indeed, still love). An older movie that also succeeds along these lines is The Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy, but, of course, the godfather of this style is George Lucas whose Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark first showed us how it is done. Not every movie should be like this. But, boy, are these movies fun when done right.