I probably wouldn’t have seen Cars in the theater had a friend not called me and invited me to go. Well, to be fair he suggested we see a movie, and I suggested Cars, as there was nothing else particularly appealing, though I do feel some obligation to see An Inconvenient Truth, if only to remind myself of what I am already all too aware of.
In any event, as we went into the theater, it occurred to me that I had seen every single Pixar film since Toy Story. My next thought was to organize them by my opinion of their quality, but other than deciding The Incredibles was my favorite and Toy Story 2 was probably the best one, I abandoned the enterprise as the worthless nerd speculation that it was.
I will say that I think Cars is one of the lesser Pixar movies. It’s on par with Monsters, Inc., which I also found just a bit underwhelming—though in both cases, I think Pixar may be a victim of their own success. Cars is a much better animated film than a lot of recent releases, but it’s not as good as their best work.
On the roads of Cars, there are no passengers and no drivers—just cars. Cars with shiny Fisher Price-like paint finishes, vaguely creepy eyes, and (in some cases) even more creepy back tattoos. While the film looks beautiful, I’m not sure the design of the anthropomorphic cars quite works, especially around the eyes.
The story is straightforward and, for anyone who watched a lot of television as a kid, very familiar. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot rookie race car with an ego bigger than Bigfoot (the monster truck, not the cryptid). While traveling across the country to an important race in California, he gets lost on the famous Route 66 and ends up in a two-car (well, dozen-car) burg, where his resulting freak-out causes so much property damage that the local judge forces Lightning to repair the road before letting him resume his cross-country trip.
During his time in town, he makes new friends (such as sleek Porsche Sally Carrera, played by Bonnie Hunt, and the rusted-down truck Mater, voiced by—this is how he’s billed on IMDb.com—Larry the Cable Guy), discovers an incredible secret about the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), and discovers that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to caring about people—eh, cars—other than himself.
It’s very standard children’s stuff, and it’s indicative of an overall issue with Cars—much more than its predecessors, it feels like a film for children. There’s a dearth of the adult in-jokes that peppered the previous Pixar films, leaving a very stripped-down storyline. It almost feels like a Disney animated film from the 1950s or ’60s—a major change from the futuristic milieu of The Incredibles. There’s just not a lot to chew on here. The film provides some good, if simple, lessons about selfishness, egotism, and hard work.
What’s perhaps a bit more troubling is the preachy nostalgia about the “lost paradise” of 1950s-era middle America. More than anything else, this feels like slight pandering to a middle American audience. Between young children and middle America, this may be the most demographically-targeted of the Pixar films thus far, and that’s unsettling.
Story aside, I must admit that Pixar continues to improve artistically and technologically. There are many breathtaking landscapes in this film, and plenty of small touches, from the completely believable way a tractor flips over (“tractor-tipping”) to the smooth, shiny look of a new-paved road. Those Pixar folks are getting very, very good.
The voice work is, as usual, very good, with Larry the Cable Guy channeling the late Jim Varney for the voice of Mater, a broken-down truck who steals much of the film. I also enjoyed Jeremy Piven’s cameo as Lightning’s unseen agent and Pixar staple John Ratzenberger as Lightning’s carrier truck, Mac.
Pixar’s next film is Ratatouille, about a French rat obsessed with gourmet food. After that, I hope they bring us Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s long-postponed animated project Ray Gunn, a noir about a futuristic private eye (think Blade Runner meets The Maltese Falcon).