Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Film Review: Cars

"Cars" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Walking into Pixar's "Cars" (2006) I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't seen the movie before but its reputation precedes it. It is considered, along with "A Bug's Life" (1998), to be one of Pixar's "lesser" films. A good effort, but, not an instant family classic in the same league as "Toy Story" (1995), "Finding Nemo" (2003) or "Wall-E" (2008). But, not surprisingly, for me, I disagree with the majority.

"Cars" had a lot going against it, I initially thought. Mostly because of the film's reputation. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis correctly pointed out the world inhabited here is absent of living creatures. There are no humans. The cars drive themselves. This seems to have disturbed Ms. Dargis a great deal. And I too thought this might create a problem. Am I honestly going to care about these vehicles? Then there was the issue of the film's running time. "Cars" clocks in at just under two hours. Pretty long I thought for an animated children's film. Are kids really going to sit patiently that long in one spot? Not my niece and nephew (!).

But that's why it's important not to judge a movie based on preconceived notions. "Cars" is a stunner. A perfectly constructed movie. If it was a live action film, I might dismiss it as predictable. It doesn't have a very original plot. We've seen this story before. Outsider city slicker meets small town folks and learns to embrace small town values. Frank Capra did something similar in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1937). Though with Pixar at the helm, I somehow found the movie fresh and heartwarming. Near the end of the second act, start of the third, I actually came to care about these little cars. They had won me over. Each has a distinct personality.

The star of "Cars" is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) a rookie in the world of race car driving. The movie opens up with him racing for the Piston Cup. He is one of the favorites to win the race. Though he has some competition. There is the racing legend, The King (Richard Petty, who is actually considered the king of car racing), in his last race, and the permanent runner up, Chick (Michael Keaton). One of these three men are going to win the race. But the unexpected happens. A three way tie. Now, a tie breaker race is going to happen in L.A.

These opening moments reveal McQueen's personality. He is the cliche hot shot rookie. He can do everything by himself. He even calls himself a one man show and has no pit crew. He doesn't need it. He is a great showman and lives to be in front of the camera. He devours all the attention he is getting, especially from the young pretty female cars. He likes life in the fast lane and doesn't want others to slow him down. But we also learn McQueen has no friends. No one to share his glory with.

Mack (John Ratzenberger), McQueen's trailer, is suppose to take McQueen to California, but at McQueen's insistence, he must make the drive in one night. This is too much for Mack, who is very tired. Without revealing too much, McQueen finds himself without Mack in a small town called Radiator Springs, in Carburetor County.

Radiator Springs is a near ghost town. It has been taken off the map when Route 66 was built, the famed highway. There is a tire shop, run by the Italian car Luigi (Tony Shalhoub, re-doing his old "Wings" shtick), a gas station run by Flo (Jennifer Lewis), an organic fuel shop operated by a 60s stoner car, Fillmore (George Carlin, going back to his stoner Weatherman days), the town's judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and Sally (Bonnie Hunt) who owns the town's only hotel. They haven't had customers in years. But at least they have each other. They are a small knit community not impressed by big city life. They don't even know who Lightning McQueen is.

And now poor McQueen is stuck with these cars. Naturally at first he doesn't like it and desperately wants to leave. But soon he comes to know the story of each of these cars and finds each of them has something to offer.

Besides an appreciation for small town values there is also a message about the commericalization of America. We are always in a hurry to get nowhere. How many times have you seen a car race towards a red light? "Cars" yearns for the simple life. A time when people (or cars) took their time and enjoyed the view. When we found the beauty in the simple things in life. When we lived in a world where we actually knew our neighbor's name.

It is a sweet message but as some critics have pointed out, who is Disney to give us this message. They are a giant corporation which has only contributed to the problem. Maybe. But would you want Pixar to make a movie with the opposite message? Even if they are being hypocrites, it is a good message for kids.

The more animated films I am watching and starting to catch on to the Pixar/Dreamworks war, the more I see the difference between the two. Before I never really paid attention to which studio was releasing these animated films. They all looked the same to me. But now I see, Pixar makes much more innocent movies. Their characters are sweet and naive. They don't really inhabit our world but that's okay. I wouldn't want them to. They might get corrupted. Dreamworks characters have a little more sass. They know of our world and give us a wink. The characters in "Cars" are no different. They are simple and want to lead simple lives.

As is the case with most animated films though, we get pop culture references and plenty of voice cameos. This is usually thrown in for the adults. Here we have Bob Costas playing a sports announcer Bob Cutlass. Race car champs Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip) and Mario Andretti. Anyone who listens to NPR will notice the "Car Talk" host; Tom and Ray Magliozzi. And there is Jay Leno, who has a reputation as a car guy as well as the permanent "Tonight Show" host.

So why does "Cars" have such a bad rep? On imdb.com the movie has the second lowest rating of any Pixar film, 7.8, and the least amount of voters. "A Bug's Life" has the lowest. Yet the movie won the Golden Globe for "Best Animated Film", it won the National Board of Review award for "Best Animated Feature" and received two Oscar nominations. One for "Best Animated Feature" and "Best Music", the score was done by "Toy Story" composer Randy Newman. And it was a box-office hit. So what happened?

You even have John Lasseter directing it. As far as I'm concerned he is the face of Pixar. He directed the first two "Toy Story" movies as well as "A Bug's Life".

For me "Cars" is a sweet, engaging story of lost America. It is a fitting story even in our current economic times. Jobs are leaving this country. Businesses are closing down. Towns are empty. Maybe people should give "Cars" a second look. They probably will however as Pixar has plans for a sequel coming out next year.

"Cars" is good, decent family entertainment, with a message. It has characters the kids are going to like but they are profound enough that the adults will take notice too. I wouldn't say it is Pixar's best, but, I'd say it is in a class with my personal favorites; "Toy Story 2" (1999), "Finding Nemo" and "Up" (2009).