Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pit Stop

Film: Cars
Format: DVD from personal collection on various players.

For a number of years, it was a given that whatever Pixar movie came out would be nominated for Best Animated Feature and had a better than average chance to win. The award has been handed out 13 times and Pixar has won seven of them from nine nominations. So the chances are good that if I’m reviewing a Pixar film, it’s a film that won an Oscar. That, however, is not the case with Cars, one of the two Pixar films to be nominated and not win.

Part of the reason for that may be that in a lot of ways, Cars tells a story that we already know; it just does it with animated cars. The story at the heart of this film is little more than Doc Hollywood with a racing theme slapped over it like a new coat of paint. Essentially, a hotshot is trying to get to California and gets sidetracked in a backwater, falls in love, and figures out what is really important to him. And in the end there’s dancing, songs, and smiles.

Okay, I’m being dismissive. New rising race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a rookie on the Piston Cup circuit, but has entered the final race of the season in a three-way tie for first with racing legend The King (Richard Petty) and perennial second-place finisher Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). The three tie in the final race, leading to a race-off between them the following week. McQueen has become a sensation, but he’s unwilling to work with anyone and consistently fires his crew chiefs.

On the way to California, we learn that his life is pretty empty. He gets a bunch of free tickets for the race, but realizes he has no one to give them to. Along the way, his truck Mack (John Ratzenberger) is tormented by a gang of hot rods and Lightning McQueen slips out of the back of the truck. After a series of misadventures, he finds himself impounded in the little town of Radiator Springs, once a bustling place on Route 66, now bypassed by the freeway. His misadventures caused a great deal of damage to the road and he’s sentenced to fix the pavement before he can leave.

The town, of course, is filled with colorful characters. Most colorful and relevant to the film are Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a tow truck; Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a former big-city lawyer who discovered the place and fell in love with it; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman in his last film role), the local doctor, judge, and as it turns out, former race car. Lightning struggles against his bonds at first but eventually succumbs to the charm of the small town (and the charms of Sally) and learns to appreciate the place. By the end, he’s fallen in love with the little town the same way Sally did.

And, of course, we eventually get to the big race and all of his new friends show up to cheer him on. The ending is actually pretty good. It’s a bit trite, perhaps, but it works nicely in the context of the film and adds a little touch of sweetness at the end.

The problem with Cars isn’t the animation (which is excellent) but the fact that it seems to be lacking something ineffable that most Pixar movies have. It’s not that the characters are machines, either, because WALL-E works perfectly. No, there seems to be something missing here that just stops the film from working as well as it should. It doesn’t feel specifically like a cash grab (that was Cars 2), but it lacks a certain warmth, a humanness that other Pixar films have. It feels, in short, like an animated movie and not the sort of magical experience we tend to expect out of Pixar.

I don’t want to give the impression that Cars is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It’s just not the same level that most of us have come to expect from Pixar’s films. A lower-tier Pixar movie is still head and shoulders above a lot of other animated films, mind you, but it still feels like something of a letdown.

That may not really be fair, honestly. Cars is entertaining and the voice work is good all the way through. I like that many of the voices are instantly recognizable—George Carlin steps in as hippie VW van, Tony Shaloub is immediately recognizable as the Ferrari-loving owner of a tire store, and Cheech Marin appears as a lowrider that owns a paint shop. These are nice little Easter eggs and add to the fun.

I just wish I liked it more, or that it had more to offer.

Why to watch Cars: It’s Pixar!
Why not to watch: It’s lower-tier Pixar.


  1. One critic, from way back when "Cars" came out, put his finger on the problem for me: suspension of disbelief was harder, for this movie, because of the logical problem posed by who and what these cars were. Cars need, and imply the existence of, drivers. To go Kantian for a moment, cars are instrumental, not things-in-themselves. Roads and buildings imply human civilization, so where are the humans to sit in that human-shaped space behind every vehicle's wheel? What's the point of having a steering wheel (even if it's never visible in the movie) if there's no one to steer it? And doesn't the presence of biological life forms—plants, etc.—also imply something about the existence of animal life? In terms of world-building, this movie is missing its humans.

    Little kids, of course, won't be bothered by such considerations, but adults (like the critic in question) can easily spot the problem. You hit on it yourself when you talked, in your review, about the relative lack of humanity and warmth. "Wall-E" probably manages to circumvent this same problem because the machines in "Wall-E" are at least a little anthropoid in form, thought, and action, and because we already tend to think a certain way about robots, we easily suspend disbelief because we presume the machines in "Wall-E" to be things-in-themselves.

    I still haven't seen "Cars" all the way through; I've watched only bits and pieces and have no real desire to sit down and experience the movie from beginning to end. And that very lack of warmth and humanness is a big reason why.

    1. I've read an awesome theory for this. It's actually within one of those Disney/Pixar timelines that connects all the movies. The general idea is that Cars takes place *after* WALL-E and is in a post-apocalyptic future. The fat humans come back to Earth, clean everything up, but are too stupid to sustain life very long due to lack of farming knowledge. This allows the artificial intelligence, such as the cars (who probably WOULD be automated due to the lazy humans) to basically take over as the primary "species" of the planet after humans died out.

    2. I've heard something similar to that theory as well.

      Kevin--I think you've nailed exactly what my issue is. It all feels so artificial. WALL-E had a touch of the human to it. So did Finding Nemo. There's something about my inability to suspend my disbelief for animated cars that makes the film just not click for me.

      If you want to see the story, though, watch Doc Hollywood. It's a better movie than it's generally given credit for being and minus the big race at the end, the stories are identical.

  2. I've seen Cars because I used to watch a lot of animated movies with my niece and nephew. (They're a little old for that now.) We saw Finding Nemo a lot because that was the default movie when one of the little urchins wanted to watch something truly awful, like the Cinderella sequel that I vetoed. (I DID watch Barbie Swan Lake and Barbie Nutcracker, but I have my limits.) So I remember Finding Nemo very well.

    But I can't remember the first thing about Cars except that I saw it. And it had talking cars. And there was a race? The hero won?

    I much prefer My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away to any Pixar product.

    1. My favorite animated movie is The Incredibles. You're not missing a lot by not remembering Cars.

      I've sat through my share of terrible children's movies at the behest of my children. Fortunately, they generally have pretty good taste, so that helps.

  3. But one of them doesn't like "Finding Nemo" right? How do they feel about "Cars"?

    To me, this story is less about the Cars and more about the town. Maybe it is hard to relate to the machine without a driver, but they are merely stand ins for the abandoned culture of Route 66. The racing stuff is just a tool to get us to the main story which is the resurrection of a neglected community. I'm probably too nostalgic for the Tee Pee motels and weird roadside attractions, but set in the beautiful parts of the country that get ignored because there is a faster way to get from point A to point B, Route 66 celebrates the America that once was descriptive of our kitschy culture.

    1. I think they're both pretty ambivalent on Cars. It's not one they choose to watch that often.

      And honestly, the older one is less interested in animated films these days. She's far more likely to watch something like Silver Linings Playbook or 21 Jump Street these days.

      Good point about Route 66 culture, though. I can see that as being a signficant theme running through the film.

  4. Good call on Doc Hollywood being the same story.

    At the time this came out it was my least-favorite Pixar movie (Cars 2 now holds that spot), but I agree that even a low end one was still better than many others.

  5. I agree completely that Cars is one of the lesser lights in Pixar history and, even so, that puts it above almost all other animated movies.

    Cars has grown on me a lot over the years. It's actually pretty entertaining and even touching, like most Pixar films.

    1. @Chip--It's not only the same story, Doc Hollywood is better.

      @Ipecac--Weak Pixar is still, well, Pixar and that says a lot. Cars is probably a better movie than I give it credit for being, but it definitely feels like a letdown to me because I expect so much from the Pixar team.

    2. "It's not only the same story, Doc Hollywood is better."

      And that includes the "headlights" scenes. Sure Miatas are cute cars, but when they "flashed" McQueen it just didn't work for me the same as the scene in Doc Hollywood where Julie Warner walks out of the water topless. :-)