Monday, June 12, 2006

Cars: Beep, beep; beep, beep; yeah

I don't completely know or want to know what's in the water at Pixar, but it manages to make what would be a fair-to-middling effort from any other studio into a nice little exercise in audience goodwill. While Cars is undoubtedly one of the company's two least-developed features, it's still an enjoyable night at the movies and an almost graciously quiet rumination on loss (when it's not too busy telling you point-blank THIS IS WHAT AMERICA HAS LOST!!!!).

Most of the time, when Hollywood says that the small town way of life is better than the big city's fast pace, you don't buy it. The people making these movies tend to live with big city convenience. I just can't see them scrapping all of the wonderful things about the city to go live in the town I grew up in (and be unable to buy groceries after 10 p.m.). But Cars doesn't specifically argue that small town life is better than big city life (though it teeters close to it in a couple of scenes). It argues instead that we can blend the two types of life together, combining the sheer opportunity afforded in the city and the folksy pace of rural life. It's not immediately clear how one would do this without millions of dollars, but it's a nice sentiment.

Whether or not you like Cars is going to depend a lot on how much you warm to characters that are literally talking cars. Aside from plantlife, there's nothing organic in this world. The bugs are VW bugs, etc. This takes some getting used to (indeed, this is the first Pixar film that isn't recognizably set in OUR WORLD). While the characters display believable, recognizably human emotions, it's still hard to take anything they say seriously (the trailer for the next Pixar film, Ratatouille, plays before the film and you're immediately drawn in by the protagonist, who is a rat -- see, you think, here's something I RECOGNIZE). Eventually, you are able to look past this, but it takes some doing.

Besides that, the film looks gorgeous. This is easily Pixar's best work and the best computer animation to date. It's well worth seeing alone for some of the stunning visuals and the way the film uses lighting (nearly every scene feels as though it was shot at twilight, and the use of neon is stunning -- I literally don't know how they achieved that effect). The film uses the landscapes of the Southwest nicely, and even the characters are designed nicely, once you get past the idea that they're cars.

The film also uses music nicely. There's a James Taylor number midway through that's a nice little moment, and the scene where the cars go cruising is almost better. Still, there may have been a few too many montages (the one set to Life Is a Highway was probably unnecessary, even if that was my favorite song when I was 10), and Randy Newman's score is largely non-descript (though that describes a lot of his scores).

If there's one thing I find troubling, it's the films rather simplistic worldview. The best Pixar films are very obviously mainstream entertainments, but they blend in some unique themes and subtexts. For example, both Toy Storys work as lively ruminations on aging, and all of their films up until The Incredibles had some storyline about parents letting go of their children. Pixar's work is also incredibly witty, offering up character-based jokes rather than the pop culture jokes that have become so popular since Shrek. And Pixar is unashamed to pull at the heartstrings -- while Monsters, Inc. has its problems, the last five minutes of that film are some of the sweetest and most touching in the history of the cinema (and I mean that).

Cars, however, finally feels like a step back after The Incredibles, which was easily the most thematically rich Pixar film to date (Brad Bird kept so many symbolic and thematic plates spinning in that one that, honestly, anything would have felt like a step down). Its themes are pretty simple (sometimes you need to slow down; good friends are better than anything else in life), and they're stated overtly. At times, during the long section in the small town of Radiator Springs, it feels like everyone at Pixar forgot about subtext.

But the Radiator Springs sequences are so ingratiating that you eventually forgive all of these sins. The characters are archetypes, broadly drawn, but they're performed, written and animated with such warmth that it's hard to outright dislike the film.

So while this is a weak film, it's made stronger by the way Pixar somehow earns our goodwill. We trust them, and we know they care about their characters, so we do too. It, more than any other movie in recent memory, is a paean to the power of good brand-name recognition.

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