Among earthly posessions, few things are fawned over and personified more than cars. But can Cars, the latest animated release out of Pixar and Disney, translate that material lust into genuine love?
I was curious as to how Cars would come together, given that it's about... well, cars. I mean, Toy Story had a lot of heart, even though computer generated imagery (CGI) was relatively basic then. But technology has since advanced to the point where you could get fluffy creatures in Monsters, Inc. and realistic underwater scenes in Finding Nemo. Depicting cars sounded like a cakewalk, and since Cars was originally going to be the swan song for the Disney/Pixar partnership (though they eventually got back together in a big way), I was worried that it was only going to be a half-hearted attempt.
Even my daughter got the impression that Cars was a "boy movie." It's about cars, after all. And there's only one main female character (a blue Porsche voiced by Bonnie Hunt).
Fortunately, once again, Pixar comes through with a gem. Otherwise inanimate objects were given real soul, and we all enjoyed it -- boys, girls, kids, and grown-ups alike.
Thankfully, very little time is spent emphasizing Lightning McQueen's "before" character, a distinctly unlikable ego almost too-well voiced by Owen Wilson. And after a cross-country trip goes awry, Lightning ends up in ol' Radiator Springs, where we find the movie's real characters, and real setting (I was pleasantly surprized at how little took place on a race track). Lightning is condescending, resentful, then resigned, then curious, and soon enough affectionate.
On the technology front, Pixar wonderfully balanced jaw-dropping photorealistic landscapes and surfaces (the opening shot of Lightning was great) to simpler, but more fluid scenes of car faces and the like. When things needed to be basic, they kept it basic -- no gratuitious show-off shots of top-notch rendering (like in, say, Disney's forgettable The Wild). It made me wonder just what Pixar could have done with Toy Story if they had the tools they have today.
Story wise, it was another Pixar winner. Pretty straightforward characters and motives that small kids could understand (the romantic angle kept simple), but enough nuance to not bore the grown-ups. Mixed in with an emphasis on teamwork and friendship were themes of history, respect, and generation gaps (via a sweet subplot surrounding classic car Doc Hudson, voiced by Paul Newman).
The humor was spot-on, too. More automotive puns than you could shake a transaxle at (your eyes will get a workout scanning every sign), great visual gags (beetles and "tractor tipping"), Pixar cameos (the birds from For The Birds), other cameos (NPR listeners are in for a treat), random references ("Freebird!") and even a couple of eyebrow-raisers ("It's the Piston Cup!" "He did what in his cup?").
And since the movie was about a race car, you knew there was going to be a "big race." I was convinced from the outset that the climax would have to be something more than a "big win," and indeed, the way Cars handled it was just right.
The only thing that might not make for the smoothest ride for some folks is the "social commentary" on car culture, and interstates vs. small towns. I could've been just as entertained without that stuff, especially with the way cars and gas prices are so politicized these days... but I personally thought it was a nice touch.
Cars also features the traditional Pixar closing-credit gag reel, which was fun and featured more gags (a Hummer with spinners afraid to go off road) and inside jokes (the omnipresent John Ratzenberger on his omnipresence). But it somewhat robbed the film of a real denoument, making it hard to sense when the story actually ended. Not that it bothered any of the kids.
Another Pixar tradition well represented, by the way, was an animated short that precedes the film. Entitled One Man Band, it was a fun, noisy appetizer.
Cars offers a surprisingly rich story wrapped in a visual feast, a kids movie that grown-ups may enjoy even more. Definitely ten thumbs up from our family.
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© 1997-2008 Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org · Created: 17 July 2006 · Last Modified: 14 January 2008