I hate to admit that my anticipation for Disney/Pixar’s Cars came from a full month’s worth of gorging myself in the merchandising. The teaser trailer attached to The Incredibles last year wasn’t too promising and the idea of an automobile world devoid of humans seemed odd. How can we possibly suspend our disbelief? It’s not like our toys live and breathe when we’re gone or that there’s a whole monster universe lurking behind our closet doors. You’re telling me to believe in a world inhabited by cars? Talking fish, yes, but talking cars?
Well for me, a resounding yes.
Cars is one of the best movies of the year, and the summer season’s most enjoyable experience so far. It’s come to the point where no one can believe the unbridled success of Pixar that many detractors have decided to nitpick their seventh installment because let’s face it; no studio can be that successful in delivering a good movie. Sure, by Pixar standards it’s probably not the animation boutique’s strongest effort. But how can we complain when the bar is set so high? A home run is a home run in anybody’s ballpark, whether it’s 398 feet or 460 feet. It’s still a home run.
So Cars borrows its plot from a little-seen Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood. Yet the same thing can be said about earlier beloved Pixar movies: A Bug’s Life is basically Three Amigos. Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc. and the Toy Story films all borrow from the “buddy movie,” movies like Midnight Run, 48 Hours and even Lethal Weapon. Pixar knows this all too well because if you look at all of their movies with a harsh critical eye, their real strength is in telling the story, not in the story itself. This is also the first time Pixar jabs at itself and there is a tinge of cynicism and sarcasm, elements that were thankfully missing from the studio’s previous efforts. But like all of Pixar’s movies, there is a strong tangible sense of heart and soul in Cars, easily eclipsing the studios attempt at being slicker than your average Pixar project.
Lightning McQueen (as in Speed and Steve), voiced by Owen Wilson, is a hotshot racecar who just tied a race and is destined to outperform his performance at the upcoming Piston Cup in Los Angeles. On his way to California, he gets sidetracked to a sleepy town in Carburetor County called Radiator Springs, inhabited by colorful characters like a sexy Porche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Mater a rusty tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and old-timer Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) a gorgeous navy blue 1951 Hudson Hornet who has a few tricks (and secrets) up his white-wall tires. There are plenty of great “car”-acters as well, many are cameos from the world of NASCAR and racecar driving. Richard Petty plays King, the unbeatable racecar who is out for one last win before he retires. There are pretty obvious cameos like Jay Leno as Jay Limo and Bob Costas as Bob Cutlass, and there are obscure ones, too. Keep an eye out for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (as his own racecar nonetheless), Mario Andretti and the Apple computer itself! Yet the most inspired cameo is Jeremy Piven reprising his role as the shrewd agent in Entourage as Lightning McQueen’s very own publicity agent.
The movie is a gorgeous feat of lighting and cinematography (!) and it paces itself well. Like a great car, it’s fast when it’s fast and it slows down when it needs to. When we get to Radiator Springs, the movie cruises (perhaps too smoothly for younger viewers). Ironically, with a movie about cars, the film’s pace gages at a slower meter. Unlike the jarbled and frantic mess CG animation has offered us lately, this is Pixar’s way of reminding us that we need to take our time and embrace it. Storytelling takes time and that taking in the scenery and slowing down can be a truly enjoyable experience. This is also the first time the studio has completely captured a sense of scope and grandness. The scenery is stunning and the attention to detail comes at no surprise. The songs by Pixar stalwart Randy Newman are wonderful, particularly the haunting folk song ‘Our Town’ beautifully sung by James Taylor.
Cars can’t match The Incredibles, Finding Nemo or Toy Story 2 which in my opinion is the studio’s best effort to date. Although I find Cars to be much better than Monsters, Inc and A Bug’s Life. Make sure you stay till the end credits for some hilarious bits, too!
Cars is a love letter to simpler ideals, which is inherent in its love for Route 66 culture and the bygone era of dusty roads and small towns. Maybe this is why many are disappointed with the film; it’s asking us to embrace a culture that’s closely becoming a myth. A time when the journey was celebrated, not the destination.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment comes from Pixar acknowledging how slick their audiences have become.