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Friday, August 17, 2012

Pixargust: Cars (2006)

Over the last six years, Pixar has captured the hearts and imagination of people around the world just as Walt Disney did with his films over 75 years ago. So far we've had films about toys that became an instant classic and revolutionized computer animation, a look at the insect world, monsters scaring people as parts of their jobs, a father fish searching the entire ocean to rescue his son, and a family of superheros that become closer by breaking the tradition of secret identities. The films broke records, won awards, and all that good stuff. What would Pixar do next? Well, John Lasseter had an idea about a film with cars that he developed with Joe Ranft, who sadly passed away in an automobile accident before this film was released. While the film called Cars was a modest success when it first came out, it garnered a reputation from movie-goers and critics alike for being... the least imaginative film Pixar has produced so far. So what happened? And is it really as bad as most people make it out to be? Time to get a need for speed and drive off in... Cars.

The film begins in a racetrack, where three rival race cars compete for the coveted Piston Cup trophy and sponsorship from Dinoco. Our focus is on a rookie named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he becomes a racing sensation overnight. During his race. he stubbornly refuses to change tires which causes a blowout on the last lap. He manages to make a three-way tie with his rivals Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and The King (Richard Petty), so the officials will hold a new race in California with just these three to determine a true winner. After a meeting with the sponsors, McQueen saddles up with his driver Mac (John Ratzenberger) to be the first one in California. While McQueen is sleeping, the exhausted Mack drifts off and is startled by a gang of reckless street racers, causing McQueen to fall out the back of the truck into the road. He frantically tries to find Mac on the freeway until his aimless driving takes him to a small community on the historic Route 66 called Radiator Springs. He's arrested for reckless driving and is impounded overnight. During his trial next morning, he is ordered to fix the town road by order of the judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) under supervision of the sheriff and a tow-truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). As he fixes the road and gains the affections of the town and the town lawyer Sally (Bonnie Hunt), McQueen learns that the town was once a hot spot before the interstate was built. He learns to appreciate the little things in life as well as gain a few friends in Mater and the rest of the town, except for Doc. McQueen also learns that Doc was once a famous race car. After he fixes the road, McQueen decides to give back a little more by shopping at all the stores and fixing the town's neon somehow. The media finds McQueen and he is taken to his race in California. Turning over a new leaf, some of the town surprise McQueen at his race by being his volunteer pit crew, even Doc. McQueen loses the race, but gains so much more in the end.

Okay, so what problems would someone have with this movie? My main problem with Cars (and it's unfortunately a big one) is the story. If you've seen Doc Hollywood before, then you know Cars. Only replace the entire cast with cars. I'll admit I think it's an odd choice for a story and it does seem a little like plagiarism on that part. Or maybe it was a coincidence? I'll never know for sure. What bothers me about this is that this is Pixar. Story is usually what this company was best at. They could create these original, creative stories with beautiful looking animation and memorable characters. They got the animation part down, and it does look amazing, but the storytelling is a bit rusty. It's all flash but no substance.

Flashy surface, but rust engine.
For a movie about fast-paced vehicles, it starts slow and keeps in this lane longer than it should. One hour into the film, Lightning still has not learned his lesson. Undoubtedly its other fatal flaw is its length: there is absolutely no need to stretch a Disney comedy across two hours.It has it's clever moments, but they're sparse within its run time. And speaking of lessons, I do like it's moral. It's one I don't really see that much in other animated movies, and I do really love how it ends. It's nice that the hero didn't win but gains much more. Then again, it's not taking that many risks. It just sort of plays it safe.

Now for the characters. I'm not really a big fan of Lightning McQueen. I just think we've seen this guy before. He's the arrogant show-off that learns a valuable lesson in the end. And we're supposed to be engaged with his story when he's pretty unlikable in the first half of the movie. The side characters though, are what make this movie for me. There's a lot to keep track of like in A Bug's Life and not that many have stand-out personalities, but I do like them all more than the main character. One example is Doc Hudson with a wonderful back story and he comes to life by the excellent acting by Paul Newman. Another, and I know a few of you may hate me for saying this, is Mater. I'm not a big fan of Larry the Cable Guy's stand-up and I thought he'd be annoying as hell when I learned he was attached to this. But when I saw this movie again, I found Mater kind of charming. Maybe it's his sweet, friendly nature. Maybe it's his innocence of the outside world. He can be annoying sometimes, but I just like him. I especially love the end where McQueen helps them all. This is where they all shine through.

The animation and designs of the cars are the only consistent good things about the movie. It is cool that the Pixar folks did a little research to see what models of automobiles to use for the film, like how they decided on all the varieties of fish in Finding Nemo. I also really like the setting of Radiator Springs. From what I heard, Pixar artists got a full tour of the real historic Route 66 and many of the landmarks on that highway are present in the movie, like how The Cozy Cone Motel was modeled after the Wigwam motels in Holbrook, Arizona and Railto, California. It's little things like that that do make me like this movie a little bit more.

Cars on the whole is sort of a mixed bag. As much as I like the side characters and the homages to the real Route 66, the problems it has with the storytelling, pace, and how eerily similar it is to Doc Hollywood do hold it back from being a top-tier movie. It's on the bottom of my list because it really lacks the extra push and innovation that other Pixar films have. And considering the critical acclaim from the last movie, The Incredibles, it seems like a step backward instead of  forward. As it's own movie, it's alright. But as a Pixar movie, you sort of expect more than this. And despite it's shortcomings, there is a general charm and likability to it. You do grow to like some of these characters and they're environment. If you haven't seen it by now, take what I've said and judge it for yourself when you do see it. It's just not my favorite.

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