Director : John Lasseter
Screenplay : Dan Fogelman, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, and Jorgen Klubien (story by John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, and Jorgen Klubien)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2006
Three years ago, when I was writing about Pixar’s Finding Nemo, I pondered the fact that it was bound to happen that the award-winning computer animation studio would someday churn out a clunker. The law of averages simply demands that it will happen. However, I am now beginning to rethink that position as their latest film Cars may be the closest Pixar ever gets to making a “bad” movie, and even then it’s still pretty good.
While Cars falls somewhat short of the benchmark set by Pixar’s other films, which include both Toy Story movies (1995 and 1999), A Bug’s Life (1998), and The Incredibles (2004), it is still head and shoulder above most of the animated movies being produced at other studios, including DreamWorks and Pixar’s parent company, Disney. Visually, it is probably their most stunning achievement, with photorealistic detail reaching levels that simply have to be seen to be believed (according to the press notes, 3,000 computers were used and each frame of the nearly two-hour film took an average of 17 hours just to render). From neon lights reflecting on shiny car hoods, to the grit of a dusty race in the desert, to the individuality of hundreds of thousands of cars packing a NASCAR-like race, Cars is a visual marvel.
Cars also marks Pixar chief John Lasseter’s first return to the director’s chair since Toy Story 2, and in many ways the film was a long-time labor of love that enabled Lasseter to marry his twin obsessions with computer animation and automobiles. Yet, that may be the very heart of why Cars just isn’t quite as good as Pixar’s other movies. In short, despite a wealth of creativity, ingenuity, and skill, it just isn’t very easy to anthropomorphize cars. The automotive characters in Cars are certainly unique and have been made as “human” as humanly possible, but I was never quite able to get emotionally involved with them the way I could with animated toys, or fish, or even insects. Perhaps it is because cars are inherently inanimate objects; but, then again, so is a wooden cowboy doll.
The main character in Cars is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hotshot young racecar who is poised to be the first rookie to win the fabled Piston Cup. In order to claim victory and glory, he must make a cross-country trek to California to compete in a major race, but along the way he gets off the main road and finds himself stuck in the forgotten burg of Radiator Springs, deep in the heart of Carburetor County. After accidentally tearing up the main road, McQueen is sentenced to repair it, which keeps him trapped in what he refers to as “Hillbilly Hell” for several days.
Of course, during those days he slowly grows to appreciate the quiet, simple lifestyle of the small town, which is positioned on the once-packed Route 66, but has since been bypassed by an interstate highway a few miles away. The film’s most sentimental moments involve dewy-eyed memories of the past when Radiator Springs was a happening town that never lost its personality in the hustle and bustle of travel. In this respect, Cars is a deeply nostalgic story, painting a glorified view of the recent past when everything was slower, more personalized, and more meaningful. Traveling in those days wasn’t just about getting from Point A to Point B, but about the places you could see and the people you could meet along the way. Thus, the modern eight-lane highway becomes the film’s central metaphor, with its insistent focus on speed, while Radiator Springs rots away in the background as a symbolic speed bump that has since been bypassed.
If Disney’s traditional animated films always relied on the orphaned hero and his or her quest for fulfillment, Pixar’s computer-animated films have shown time and time again a fondness for self-reliant groups of outcasts. Think about the outdated toys of Toy Story, the circus bugs of A Bug’s Life, and even the motley crew of fish imprisoned in a dentist’s office in Finding Nemo. Cars continues that traditional with the residents of Radiator Springs, all of whom refuse to give up their love of a small town that is clearly dying.
The town’s judge and unofficial leader is Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a 1951 Hudson Hornet who doesn’t like Lightning McQueen largely because the shiny red racecar reminds him of a distant past he’s kept long hidden. Then there’s Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a rusting, buck-toothed, hillbilly tow truck whose heart is so genuine that you can easily forgive his sparkling lack of intelligence (when he hears that McQueen wants to win the Piston Cup, his shocked response is, “He did what in his cup?”). The local tire store is run by two Italian compacts (Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni) and the detail shop is run by a lowrider (Cheech Marin). There’s even a grumpy Army Jeep (Paul Dooley) who lives next door to a spaced-out hippie van (George Carlin). And, since there has to be a love interest, we get a shiny purple Porsche Carrera named Sally (Bonnie Hunt) who once lived in that fast lane in California that McQueen so desperately wants to pursue, but has since settled for a simpler, but more meaningful life in Radiator Springs.
Not surprisingly, all of these misfit characters teach McQueen a vital lesson about the true meaning of happiness and fulfillment: sometimes smaller and slower is better, and most importantly, winning isn’t everything. These life lessons are writ large, but in a children’s movie, such obviousness isn’t always a bad thing. Cars has a lot to say about how we live our lives today, and even if its view of the past is perhaps a bit too rosy-colored, it’s still hard to argue that the speed and convenience of modern life have come at the expense of other, more meaningful things.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Disney / Pixar