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"Cars": Animated NASCAR

Cars has a lot in common with Pixar’s first entry, Toy Story. Both star normally inanimate objects and deal with characters reconsidering their quest to be #1. Despite these similarities, has Pixar gained considerable ground since its feature length debut 11 years ago?

The plot: Through a series of late-night road mishaps, racing car newbie Lightning McQueen ends up arrested in a podunk, deserted town and must re-pave the road as punishment. Normally this would be bad enough, but he has to get to California in a week for a tie-breaking race. After multiple escape attempts, McQueen slowly warms up to the small-town folk and starts to realize that his fast-track lifestyle may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

After the powerhouse that was The Incredibles, expectations were pretty high for Pixar’s latest offering. Truth be told, Cars doesn’t reach the levels that the previous entry managed to reach, especially in the sophisticated subject material and eye-popping action sequences. However, perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two; after all, they are two very different films and each offer something unique. In Cars’s case, it’s just a good time.

Yes, the movie uses every plot device in the book: The hot-shot loner who learns to get close to others and appreciate the simpler things in life; the romance that starts out as denial and snide remarks but eventually buds into a relationship; the rival racer whose nonstop pride and gloating get the better of him in the end; the backwards town with a wonderful past that seeks to regain its lost glory. You’ve seen all of these in previous movies, but luckily Cars, despite its cliches, presents them well enough so that they seem fresh. It’s all in the presentation of old ideas, and Cars does a good job in that respect.

Speaking of presentation, let’s talk visuals. While the film loses a couple points for not varying the environment enough, since the majority of the film takes place in the small town, it’s still amazing to look at. There is a sequence where we see a cliff-top view of the mountain valley, and it’s just gorgeous. Racing sequences are also a highlight, especially the opening and closing competitions. The cutting is quick, and with the camera so close to the pavement, you really get the feel for speed. However, racing fans be warned: the trailers give the illusion that the film contains more racing than it actually does.

One area that I particularly liked was the way the characters moved. I must admit that I was very apprehensive about this area, because let’s face it, cars are pretty immobile vehicles. I mean, they can’t exactly contort their bodies past their solid body frame. And while that’s true to an extent, the animators deserve credit for breathing life into how the cars moved, even in simple actions like talking. They sort of bounce and sway, and despite my worries, this didn’t get irritating to watch nor overly repetitive.

Characters in the film are a mixed bag. The foreign tire servicemen are rarely entertaining, except for how quick one of them changes tires in the finale. The gas station attendants, the painter, the drill sergeant, and hippie are, for the most part, filler characters and don’t add anything. You pretty much feel like they only fulfill the role in souping up McQueen towards the end of the movie and that’s about all they do.

By contrast, we get more developed characters like Doc, the oldest car in the town. We find out later he was a famous racer back in the ’50s until a crash put him out of commission. He is a cool character with penchants for both good comic moments, such as the tortoise and the hare-style race, and drama, such as hiding his past from the townspeople. And then we come to the main comic relief, Mater. Surprisingly, he didn’t annoy me as much as I thought he would, and actually had his share of funny moments (like being the last one to realize McQueen didn’t leave town for his big race), though I didn’t appreciate Larry the Cable Guy slipping in his trademark “Git ‘r done!” towards the end… it just felt forced and out of place.

In conclusion, Cars doesn’t succeed nearly as well as The Incredibles, since the movie has its share of lulls (especially in the first half when I wondered if the film was going anywhere) and it isn’t as visceral of a treat for both the eyes and emotions. Nor is it as frantic in pace or full of funny one-liners like Monsters Inc.. Nevertheless, Cars is a fun watch, especially in the second half when all the character motivations and turns become apparent. If nothing else, you’ll atleast get eye candy scenery and familiar plotlines in a slick new package.

P.S.: Make sure to stick around during the closing credits. We get a hilarious bit where previous Pixar films are recreated in car form and John Ratzenberger’s character (a semi) keeps commenting on how John’s previous roles are so well-delivered, but then catches on that it’s the same thing over and over again. I’m glad Pixar is able to mock themselves for something that I’m sure we all noticed ages ago.

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