Directed by John Lasseter
Pixar’s Cars dazzles with eye-popping animation coupled with a story that’s corny and maybe a little too familiar, but still very potent in terms of emotional punch. The filmmakers do such a great job of introducing the characters (cars and trucks – no people or animals) and making the viewer care about them that it doesn’t matter that the story was nothing new or out of the ordinary. Cars has lots of heart – the story concerns an egotistical young race car (Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson) who “finds himself” after getting sidetracked in a charming but rundown small town, Radiator Springs – located on historic Route 66 in the desert Southwest. Interstate 40 has bypassed the town so tourists don’t stop by anymore. After being sidetracked there on his way to LA, McQueen, unhappy at first, learns to love the town and discovers what he really values in life. He also meets car of his dreams and falls in love. Under the influence of this stranger, Radiator Springs gets a shot of self-confidence and spruces up – heart-warming, summer-movie corn at its best.
We’ve seen the story many times before – a self-centered, arrogant city-slicker gets stuck in a small town, hates it at first, then loves it and has his life enriched after connecting to the things in life that really matter. The too-familiar story is almost an animated re-make of Doc Hollywood (Michael J Fox plays a big-city doctor stuck in a small town.) The heart of the film, though, lies in the beautifully developed characters, notably a humble, rusty, old tow truck, Mater (skillfully voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.)
I can’t think of animated character that combines the humor, poignancy and sophisticated CG artwork of Mater. The filmmakers wisely decided to put the characters’ eyes in the windshield, use the grill or the bumpers for the mouth and allow the front wheels to act like hands for gesturing. The Cars characters have the most expressive animated faces I’ve seen. The state-of-the-art 3D effect in Cars sets a new industry standard: very sophisticated use of shading and reflection creates cartoon characters with an amazingly realistic look. Smooth, glossy car surfaces faintly reflect nearby objects. When the cars move they crouch realistically and throw off bits of dirt which in turn casts shadows. Little bits of rubber – perfectly rendered in 3D – fly from the tires on the racetrack. Cars also sets a new high water mark in the rendering of movement – very important for a car movie. The cars are dazzling both at speed and under acceleration. The backgrounds are beautifully designed and painted – and choosing the Southwest as a location was a plus. They even made Paul Newman’s character (Doc Hudson, the town doctor/mechanic with a history as a racer) look a little like him by making the front bumpers thin - like the actor’s lips -- and having them move very little as he talks – also like the actor. Pixar continues to set the standard for animation – they are unquestionably better than any competitor.
One aspect of Cars that will disturb some people flows from having cars, inanimate objects, as the only characters: people are aware of how deeply people love and identify with their cars – and prejudge others by the cars they drive. This intimate relationship between cars and people makes many uncomfortable because of issues like sprawl, energy usage, pollution, etc. Many people wish things weren’t that way but feel powerless to change anything. Because of the many undesirable results of the car culture, they resent any car-positive movie. My point: try not to let your frustrations over car culture keep you away from a great movie.
What Pixar did – as an artistic device – is to fuse the car and the personality into one, bypassing the human. Whether we like to admit it or not, it’s very much the way things are in our culture – and by that I mean almost anywhere on earth. People strongly identify with what they drive. It goes way beyond mere utility. Your vehicle is like a huge avatar representing your social/sexual identity. It is the image that you present to the public whenever you’re out on the road. It’s probably just as important to your self-image as the way that you dress. So if this bothers you, ask yourself: is it not only disturbing but true nevertheless? The filmmakers didn’t attempt to engage in social commentary – well, maybe a little – the point of view of the film is that car culture is not only fun but an intricate part of what’s great about America – at least pre-interstate America. The film doesn’t try to get heavy – it’s all in fun.
There’s one particularly touching scene where McQueen and Sally (his love interest, a Porsche voiced by Bonnie Hunt) take a drive into the lovely countryside of Carburetor County. It’s a typical “first date” scene in which two lovers -- just getting to know each other -- go somewhere together. Beautiful scenery is a staple of these scenes. The race car and the Porsche gracefully wind their way up mountain switchbacks, fording streams, through desert and forest. Lyrical. Gorgeous. Graceful. I can’t think of a better-executed first-date scene – and the actors are animated cars.
Cars features cameos from a who’s who of the car world: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Darrell Waltrip, Mario Andretti, H.A. 'Humpy' Wheeler, Ray Magliozzi, Tom Magliozzi, Michael Wallis, and Michael Schumacher. A pop-country soundtrack churns out song after song that mesh perfectly with the setting and story. Don’t leave until the absolute end of the credits – there are several good scenes (including a parody of earlier Pixar films) playing next to the (long) credit sequence. This is, without a doubt, a big-screen movie. It will lose quite a lot in transition to DVD.
I love animation. I’ve seen virtually ever animated feature released in the U.S. in the last 30 years as well as many animated shorts in film festivals and the like. Cars is as good as it gets in terms of technical achievement. Some may consider the story a bit clichéd, but the character development was so convincing that it didn’t matter – I would go anywhere with McQueen, Mater and Sally. There’s a big race at the end but it wasn’t built up as the dramatic high point. The journey with the characters that I grew to love is the essence of the film. I’ve heard that, at Pixar, their motto is: “Story is King”. But really, I think character is and should be King. I’d rather have a plain old story about characters that I loved than a complex drama about characters that I barely got to know. I loved the cars and trucks in Cars.
Images are copyright Pixar/Disney.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.