Monday, June 13, 2011

From the Vault: Cars, Pixar's first so-so film

In anticipation of the upcoming Cars sequel, here is my review of the original Cars from June 9, 2006. As a note, my newspaper reviews have star ratings: five is the best, one is the worst.

Four stars is the lowest rating I’ve ever given a Pixar film. It’s also the second highest rating a movie can get on my scale. You can make your own deductions from there but if one of them resembles this — “Cars is a superb movie that does not equal Pixar’s much-more-superb predecessors,” said by me — then you’re on the right track.

Cars is beautiful. No, Cars is gorgeous. It’s the kind of movie that makes you forget that all other movie mediums exist. Hand-drawn, live action, Claymation … what are they again? I’m now firmly convinced that Pixar workers even dream in computer renderings, and that those visions are the main inspiration for their movies. How else could such mesmerizing images make it to a movie screen? Magic, perhaps, which is where Disney comes in.

This new one takes place in a world where cars are people. They have their own minds, desires, personalities and dreams. When a racing event is held, cars are driven around a track while other cars watch from the bleachers. And when its time for the wave, instead of standing up they flash their high beams. The cars act and think very much like people, except that all their motivations are related to automobiles: their food is gasoline (different grades being different flavors), their shoes are tires (Lightyears, a reference to a certain Buzz) and their bugs are tiny winged VWs. Also, their personalities are akin to the make of the car: a Porsche is a hot young lady, a rusty tow truck is a twangy-voiced redneck, a Ferrari is an Italian racing stud, the lowrider is a gangster, the psychedelic minibuss is a hippie that blares Hendrix during the morning reveille … and so on. Pixar must have made great use of their Auto Trader Magazine because Cars is like a mall parking lot, each space is a different make, model, color with its own unique dents, dings or paintjob.

The movie’s central hero is a slick stock-car named Lightning McQueen, which must be a nod to wheeled daredevil Steve McQueen (IMDb says different). McQueen is a hotshot rookie driver racing for the Piston Cup, a NASCAR-like oval racing league. After a three-way tie during the last race of the season, race officials agree to a tiebreaker a week later in another city. As McQueen travels, the big  rig (his name’s Mack) pulling his trailer falls asleep and dumps McQueen in Radiator Springs, a sad little town on Route 66. In a panic, McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) tears up the street and is apprehended for speeding. Car jail, by the way, is a tire boot and an impound yard. The next morning the judge (voiced by avid race fan and driver Paul Newman) administers a punishment: Lightning must pull Betty, a road paver that spurts hot tar and asphalt and seems to have come from the depths of Hell.

All Pixar movies have a deep relationship to their central themes and Cars is no different. There’s a lesson here — I’ll let you discover how it’s administered — that suggests all cars feel sadness when they get old and are passed over by other greater models. The movie made me think of my own first car, a Hyundai hatchback. I wondered what kind of personality it must have had. Would it speak Korean? And where is it now? Is it happy? Hopefully some other high school student is using it as their first car and its seeing the road again. These are thoughts that race through your head when you get cozy in this flick.

Cars is filled with wonderful characters, or caracters. Radiator Springs especially is filled with the most delightful makes and models. The crowd’s favorite will be Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), a tow truck who’s short on friends but full of heart. In his down time he goes tractor tipping until he’s chased off by a mean combine. When he hears of the Piston Cup, he replies, “He did what in your cup?” The Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), owns a hotel where the rooms are garages built around giant parking cones. My favorites were Guido and Luigi, two tiny Italian autos who share many a Europeans’ views on racing: NASCAR isn’t racing, Formula 1 is. The first thing they ask McQueen is if he knows any Ferraris. Then, at the end of the film, Formula 1 champ Michael Schumacher (as a Ferrari, of course) wants a set of tires and the little cars sputter, stall and pass out.

More than anything else, though, Pixar has taken animation to the absolute extreme next level. The animation crew seems to have made more innovations since the last picture than ever before. It seems special attention has been paid to lighting and the illusion of depth. The cars look a little cartoony, or maybe eerily too similar to Thomas the Tank Engine, but the world they inhabit is spectacular. In previous Pixar movies the created world seemed to end outside the scene, like a set that’s too expensive to expand out. In Cars, the horizon can be seen miles away, and when we look down a long, hot road, the asphalt sweats and distorts each mile after it. This is a massive world that has been created for these cars to play on, and they sure do have fun.

So why the lower rating? It’s hard to put my finger on. The premise is hard to swallow. Cars as humans is a little strange, especially those grill smiles and windshield eyes. In the other Pixar movies, the worlds were created around humans: bugs were living in a world we also inhabited, toys were moving around when we weren’t looking, monsters were coming out of our closets while we slept, and fish were swimming in an ocean we were exploring. Cars, though, is void of people and it doesn’t have the same dynamic as say Finding Nemo or Toy Story. Cars is a great picture, don’t get me wrong, but with the absence of humans I think audiences might have some questions: Who makes the cars? Are all movie theaters drive-ins? Is the Ford Taurus the slow, nerdy kid that no one wants to hang around? And even if you don't have questions, it's just kinda creepy.

Or consider this: no humans means no car salesmen. Now that’s a utopia, or maybe autopia.