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"Cars": Two-Thirds of a Great Movie

by on June 11, 2006

Upon waking up this morning and browsing through the Philadelphia Inquirer, I came across Steven Rea’s review of Cars. To my amazement I found not the lavish praise usually heaped on Pixar films, but two measly stars and a short statement that sums it all up: “Pixar finally rolled out a clunker.”

This gave new life to the question that has haunted me since the sub-par teaser of the movie premiered before The Incredibles. Is this the one that ends “the streak”?

Well, yes and no.

To be blunt, Cars is arguably the weakest film Pixar has produced to date and is noticeably lesser than its six previous films. This does not mean that it is not a good movie, because it is: it is weak like Return of the Jedi is in relation to the original Star Wars trilogy (as opposed to weak like Godfather Part III is in relation to parts I and II).

The problems are most apparent in the film’s weak first third. It takes awhile for the movie to find itself. For this first third, the film at times veers dangerously close to Dreamworks territory. For the first time that I can remember in a Pixar film, the writers have chosen to resort to pop culture references and cheap “adult” gags that litter all the other CG films of this type. (Haha! A Jay Leno parody! Ha! Schwarzenegger as a car!)

These are fine as throw-away gags in other films but this is Pixar we are talking about here. Previously, they didn’t have to resort to cheap, stock gags – the characters were fleshed out enough from the get go. This is not the case here; Lightning is an unlikable windbag who you can’t really get behind, and the other characters introduced just seem… vanilla. And the traditional Ratzenberger performance doesn’t work this time around (something that Pixar themselves may have realized: stay through the end credits for some absolutely hilarious bits)

Fortunately for all of us, once the film gets off the highway and into Radiator Springs, it comes to life. The denizens of this town are colorful and well-concieved, as the writing shifts from lackluster spot gags to hilarious, well-written character gags. One gag depicting the differing wakeup activities of an uptight army Jeep and a hippie Volkswagen was brilliant.

Larry The Cable Guy absolutely shines in a hilarious role as Mater, the rusty old tow truck who befriends Lightning. This character is so well-realized that he takes a vaunted spot in the Cartoon Dimwit Hall of Fame with Pinky and Stimpy: many of his lines are delivered with just that right does of stupidity and utter cluelessness to turn them into classics.

It is here that the film finally finds that most crucial ingredient of all Pixar films – its heart. The story is admittedly predictable, but it is delivered with that tender care that always seems to come from Emeryville. It becomes very moving, as the characters are now finally more than just anthropomorphized cars – they are real. As John Lasseter says in nearly all of his interviews, “they belong to the world now.”

It’s because of that testament to how Pixar focuses on story that the visuals come last. After seeing film after film seemingly engage in a sadistic contest of how cheap they can make the visuals look, it’s refreshing to see a film that looks almost photorealistic in spots. Each film seems to make a concentrated effort on one difficult part of the process. In Monsters, Inc. it was fur; in Incredibles it was the animation of real humans. Here, a lot of effort was spent into light and shadow and it shows – the “drive” sequence with Lightning and Sally is great fo just sitting back and enjoying the view.

Pixar fans can breathe easily now; it’s not a clunker. Yet it’s not the unqualified success we’ve become accustomed to from the studio either – almost entirely because it gets off to quite the slow start. But if you get beyond that, it’s two-thirds of an instant masterpiece.

And judging by the trailers that preceded this, two-thirds of a great movie looks to be a lot better than about five of the other “farting animal” CG movies coming out this year.

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