'Speed Racer' Limps Around the Track

It may be a tricked-out ride, but "Speed Racer" (* ½ out of four) is too long for kids to sit still and too frenetic for their parents. Maybe teens and twentysomethings will pick up the slack.

For a movie about velocity, the excitement factor is low and the races feel like a drag. Perhaps that has a lot to do with its length: 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is at least a half-hour too long for a movie based on a cartoon. Or maybe it's the predictable story about a guy who goes up against crooked corporate sponsors.

Racer can look vibrant with its blend of live action and computer-generated animation. But the cars zipping around the track look interchangeable, and the action sequences are more video game than movie.

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Writers/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski (TheMatrix trilogy) attracted some major acting talent. Emile Hirsch is fine as Speed, though the role doesn't exactly offer the challenge of his Oscar-caliber performance in "Into the Wild." Christina Ricci is his girlfriend, Trixie, and Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play his parents.

But for filmmakers who pushed the envelope with the Matrix movies, "Speed Racer" just doesn't measure up. There are echoes of 2006's "Cars" and 1982's "Tron" -- vivid special effects, the use of a video game-style competition. But it's often more garish than dazzling.

As a child, Speed Racer is not much of a scholar, preferring instead to hang around with his idol, older brother Rex. When Rex dies in a mysterious crash, Speed honors his memory by following in his footsteps.

Doggedly loyal to the family racing business, he turns down a profitable sponsorship deal from a conglomerate, so Royalton Industries' megalomaniacal owner (Roger Allam) promises to ruin Speed's career. Speed, determined to restore the family honor by competing in the cross-country rally that took his brother's life, teams up with Racer X (Matthew Fox) to expose Royalton's corruption.

Though it's a simple tale that should be understandable for viewers as young as 6, the filmmakers put so much emphasis on visual panache that narrative coherence suffers.

Yes, it's a candy-colored Day-Glo world, but there's a liveliness missing from this lead-footed "Speed Racer."

(Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking. Opens tonight in select theaters and Friday nationwide.)

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