But for all intents and purposes, the cars are people. Not Soylent Green. People. The windshield is their eyes, the radiator grill at the front is their mouth, and they talk, drive around and even fall in love.
They can also be arrogant, ignorant, dopey, loving and nostalgic about the past. Especially a past where people took the time to just slowly drive around, instead of racing everywhere at top speed. They also had small town values, and loved, I dunno, a shiny chassis, a good paint job every once in a while, and a nice tune by James Taylor or Randy Newman.
In short, these are cars that aren’t really imagined to be that different from the people sitting in the audience: smug, comfortable, middle-class consumers.
Some are saying Cars (dir: John Lasseter, 2006) is the first fuck-up by a company praised for its successes so far. Each Pixar animated movie has made more money than the last, and ironically enough, the company has supplanted Disney as one of the main producers of ‘toons’ for the masses at the cinema. It’s ironic because Disney finally bought the company for about 7 billion dollars, probably out of a determination to stop them at any cost. If Disney can’t get audiences to watch its crap anymore, it’s going to stop everyone else from putting out decent animated flicks as well.
At least that’s what I think the company’s mission statement is. It could, in actuality, be to become the greatest producer of cheese in the world. And with flicks like Cars being put out by their in-house company now, they’re going to regain their place at the top of the cheese-making heap.
Cars is everything the other flicks were, even more so. Every cheesy, corny, cliché element is extruded and shaped according to Pixar’s determination to not stray too far from the known. Here they want to pretend they really give a fuck about all the hicks, rednecks, and ignorant unwashed masses that they hope will still drag their kids to this flick and buy them the oodles of merchandising on offer. It’s the kind of reflexive window into Pixar’s perspective on Americans themselves, and it wants them to celebrate how wonderful they are just for being who they are. Ah, the laziest form of self-adulation.
I know none of this shit is immediately obvious in any phenomenal way, or that it is that different from your average Hollywood flick, but for Pixar it does represent a level of caution and timidity I did not expect from them. Have no doubt, Cars is still an incredibly impressive animated movie. It looks superb, the animation is spectacular, most of the characters are likable and I’m sure the colours and movement will distract most kids for two hours, making it a valuable weapon in any parent’s arsenal of pacification techniques.
But the choice of story is hackneyed and derivative for a bunch of tech head geniuses prized for their originality and imagination. The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and the rest were not exactly conventional. Sure, they retain plenty of elements to keep them recognisable and familiar, but they managed to match technological expertise with interesting story telling.
Cars has the kinds of themes and plot points I’ve seen in dozens of films, and not just Hollywood crap. The city slicker being trapped by circumstance in the country, who gradually has his or her arrogance and impatience eroded by basking in the gentle glow of country folk goodness, is an ancient tale. Ancient in that I’m sure that cavemen had stories about uppity tree dwellers coming to the caves and realising they’re not so much better than the cave folk they look down on.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a racing car. In his own words, he is speed. He yearns to win he Piston Cup. Winning the championship will mean sponsorship, endorsements and car groupies. And glory, eternal glory.
He is brash and arrogant, and believes he doesn’t need anyone’s help or support to achieve his goals, which, needless to say, gets him into trouble. On the way to California in order to compete in the final race for the Cup, he gets into strife with some country hicks in a rundown town called Radiator Springs. Before you can start whistling the theme from Deliverance, he becomes their prisoner until he can learn a lesson or two about the important things in life. And maybe find love. Sound familiar?
This town isn’t just a town fifty years past its glory days; it’s a demographic microcosm, as it should be. There’s the patriotic Jeep, the hippy Kombi van (George Carlin), the Hispanic lowrider (Cheech Marin), the absolute hick redneck tow truck (referred to in the credits as Larry the Cable Guy, I’m not making that up), and the stately, grizzled old timer who thinks Lightning is nothing but trouble (Paul Newman).
There has to be a love interest. A previously citified Porsche called Sally (Bonnie Hunt) has made Radiator Springs her home, and guides Lightning along the path of his indoctrination into believing small town values trump city values every time, as if it’s a game of scissors, paper, rock.
Of all the Pixar flicks, this is the one that least seems like it was aimed at kids. The Incredibles had plot points and dynamics that could be said to be more adult than child orientated, but Cars seems to be even more adult focused. As such, having bored kids run around the cinema I was in added a special little spice to the proceedings. Every other time I’ve watched a Pixar flick at the cinema, the kids have been entranced for its entire duration, but I saw much boredom here.
The story is entertaining enough, lessons are learned, scenic slow drives are taken, the bonds of friendship and the virtues of small town life are ruthlessly reinforced, but I can’t help but feel there’s something wrong with this picture. Perhaps the amount of money and time Pixar is spending on these things means that they can’t afford to make something unless it reeks of generic-ness. And whilst cheese and hokeyness were always present before, now they’ve opened the floodgates in the fear that without it they’re not going to get the parental bums on seats bringing in their numerous offspring.
So they aim firmly at the middle of everything, be it middle of the road or the middle of the brow in order to timidly ensure the greatest of mass appeal. But they had that mass appeal before anyway, didn’t they?
Compared to their main competitors at Dreamworks SKG and Fox, with their tech groups Pacific Data Images and Blue Sky, Pixar took the high road. Pixar was better. The lamest moment of a Pixar movie trumped the best moments of any of the Shrek, Ice Age movies, or the loathsome Shark Tale. Now whilst they’re still achieving great things with CGI (several scenes made me forget I was watching something computer animated), the stories are starting to look passé because they want Shrek-like number at the box office.
Maybe these flicks were always this treacly, and maybe I was less cynical back then. Cars is, after all, a very entertaining and amusing flick. The little touches and bravura sequences are still delightful and charming, the voice work is pretty well done and the resolution of the great race undercut some of my irritation, though it’s still treacly as hell. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m complaining about nothing. Cars is what it is. It is what it looks like.
Criticising it for what it isn’t, is slightly pointless. Pixar are still top of the heap when it comes to the big budget animated flicks, I just hope that next time they can come up with something that feels a little less like it was assembled by a boardroom full of marketers. They say you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of your audience, but by Jeebus, there’s got to be a limit.
One last point, as has become standard for Pixar cinema releases, the main film is preceded by a short animated movie, which in this case wasOne Man Band, which was truly excellent. Those few minutes, relating to two different one man busking bands competing for the punter’s dollar, gave me a bigger laugh than most of Cars. Make of that what you will.
7 times I was the only one that laughed at the Freebird reference out of 10
– ‘I’m happier ‘n a tornado in a trailer park!’ – Mater, at least someone is, Cars.“