cars (2006)

Over the last decade, there was one studio left in Hollywood that had built enough of a name for itself so that its mere mention was synonymous with solid storytelling and quality films. That was, of course, Pixar Animation Studios - a small company specializing in computer generated animation that was acquired by Disney at the height of their success in the early 1990's. The irony comes in the fact that, in those 10+ years since their partnership first formed, Pixar has risen to greater and greater success while the Disney empire has toppled to the depths of Hollywood's most disappointing studios. With each film, Pixar seemed to grow and strengthen, not only in their technical achievements with CGI, but also in delivering fantastic stories that were well-told and driven by fully realized characters (even if they were fish). It's becomes more than clear that Pixar's films are the ones that kids will still be watching 30 years from now when all the others have faded away. With their 7th film, Cars, they've delivered yet another great story with great characters, but it seems that something happened along the way. Each film up until now, in my opinion, was far better than the one that came before it, and I always wondered if it would continue that way forever. Alas, with Cars, the studio has not topped itself as usual, and some of the mythic quality has been lost. With Cars, Pixar has shown themselves to be mortal.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Before you start canceling any plans, I'll say it: Cars is a fine film. But fine shouldn't really be in the same sentence with a Pixar film. I suppose I should have seen it coming with the film's lackluster trailers, but I have to be honest, I thought that Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles all looked bad in their trailers and the films themselves turned out to be anything but. The film was a hard sell and a pretty risky move from the start. I mean, it's about cars. At least toys resemble humans, and fish and bugs are at least alive. Cars are inanimate machines, I wondered before entering the theater, if I would buy it at all. Well, I did. In fact, I had no problem with it at all. Pixar has successfully been able to create cars that look as though they live, breathe and think. The cars have personality and much more character than their more adept animal counterparts in Ice Age, Chicken Little, Shark tale or any of the other animated garbage the other studios keep churning out. Thankfully, Cars is still lightyears ahead of crap like Monster House, Barnyard, Ant Bully and all the other junk I rolled my eyes at in the previews before this one. Pixar still turns out the best animated shorts, as seen in One Man Band which precedes this film. It's no For the Birds, but it's pretty darn close. Anyway, now I'll get to the actual movie I suppose. Cars stars Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen, a red race car that's trying to make it big in Nascar by winning the Piston Cup . He's full of himself, reckless, thinks of nothing but victory, yadda yadda, you know the drill. Lightning's on his way to the next big race when he finds himself stranded in a small town on the abandoned Route 66. From there, the film goes ... exactly where you'd expect it to. While it's fun to watch all of the characters do what they do, there's just something missing from it that the other Pixar films seemed to overflow with: Creativity. Endless Creativity. In the other films it seemed like more was done in terms of playing jokes and other plot points off of what the characters in the film were. (like when the mosquito orders a Bloody Mary in A Bug's Life.) Here we miss alot of it and have to settle for car versions of celebrities like Jay Leno and Elvis. The studio is also suffering from another side effect of so much success: they know what their audience wants to see. They know it so well that with Cars they finally have it down to a formula, and formula is what kills the film. It lacks that feeling of uncharted territory that Toy Story 2 (as their first sequel) and The Incredibles (as their first with a new director) had. It might have had something to do with the fact that it was the last film in their contract with Disney, and the speculation has been that they simply rushed through it to get it done and fulfill their obligations. It sure doesn't seem like they're trying as hard. It follows standard Pixar procedure, except it ends up being pretty weak in the one element that has served them so well in the past: the buddy system. Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, Marlon and Dory, they were all fantastic duos. The Incredibles moved away from this and I thought it was a new and better direction for the studio, but Cars goes right back to it and doesn't do a very good job of it. When I left Toy Story as a kid I felt a certain connection had been formed between Woody and Buzz, but with Lightning McQueen and Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy ... no, sadly, I'm serious) I never really felt like they had much to do with eachother. After a quick scene or two they are inexplicably announced as "best friends" and the film never questions it after that, nor does it attempt to reaffirm it.

The film benefits from the charm that, I'm still convinced, will never leave from Pixar's films. There's still a genuine heart behind the film, no doubt about it. Had this movie been put out by Dreamworks or one of the other lesser studios I would have been astounded at how good it was. But, after continually being wowed, I'd say we're back to A Bug's Life level quality. Nothing wrong with that, I'm just sayin. The film rises above all the other, however, in the technical aspects. The CGI is incredible and is another huge step forward in more realistic looking animation. I don't know how they did it, but the metallic aspects of Lightning McQueen were perfectly rendered, if it didn't have a face I would have sworn it was a real car in some of the shots. But, that's what Pixar has always done best. Somehow they can make things look more real, while still retaining a cartoon like quality that makes them appealing. The characters in the other CGI films these days, especially with human characters, are freaking creepy. Pixar has never had a problem there and Cars is no different. Of course, there aren't any human characters in Cars, but if there had been, I bet they would've looked good. It's obvious they've greatly improved on creating landscapes, making the dirt and pavement look fantastic. They've come a long way from Toy Story. In some cases it was a bit hard to get used to the cars as not actually having any seats and things inside of them. In on scene, a husband and wife are taking a trip together, which means that there are two cars driving along next to eachother. The thought literally crossed my mind of "... why didn't they just take one car?". Of course, I immediately snapped out of it  and realized what a senseless question it was. The voice acting is another high point of the film, with Owen Wilson and Paul Newman turning in some great performances. What's always impressed me about Pixar is that they have never gone for famous big-name actors to fill their roles. While Owen Wilson is nowhere near a small-time actor, he fits the part, and never really sounds like himself in the role. It's just one of the great things about Pixar that the imitators can't seem to get their heads around, resulting in the star-studded, but usually crappy, Dreamworks animated films. I mean, I enjoy Shrek, but Eddie Murphy's voice sticks out like a sore thumb, which can't be said for any of the characters in Cars. Even Larry the Cable Guy turns out to be great in the film because you can never really tell it's his voice. The characters take on a life of their own. The music in the film opts more for tunes sung by popular groups than the other films, but they fit, so it's fine. The low point of the film, and the only moment in a Pixar movie that's ever actually made me cringe, was the song and montage scene illustrating the downfall of the town and route 66 due to the new interstate. The lyrics were literally as bad as "our town is gone now / interstates are bad / I liked the town alot / towns are better than interstates" or some garbage like that. Finding Nemo had its fair share of sappy moments, but this was just ridiculous. 

All in all, it's a pretty good movie, by no means a blemish on Pixar's record. They're still batting a thousand as far as I'm concerned. However, if this is a sign of things to come, I'm not sure how much more of Cars caliber movies I can handle. On it's own, though, Cars is merely a mild let-down simply because it wasn't up to par with the other fantastic films they've produced. I'd still recommend it, just don't bother running out to see it. Maybe briskly jog, or walk semi-fast. If I could sum up the film in a simple statement, it would be this final point: So far I have bought just about every film that Pixar has made. I will not be buying Cars. That's enough said as far as I'm concerned. So check it out, it's still worth at least one viewing.