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Cars (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 June 2006
“Cars” is the latest Pixar movie, and maintains their amazing high quality: it’s terrific. ALL of their movies have been terrific. Even the least of their releases, “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.” were terrific. How the heck do they maintain this level of achievement? And now that they are owned by Disney (instead of being autonomous with their films released by Disney), can they possibly sustain this unbroken line of excellence?

It’s true that this one slips just a bit in terms of story; the basic plot is a shade familiar—hotshot learns better by exposure to rural wisdom—which hasn’t been true of any of this team’s other releases. And it’s a little slow getting under way, but cruises to a winning finish.

If you’re deeply into NASCAR and other competition racing, you’ll recognize some of the voices and references, but if you don’t have a shrine to Dale Earnhart in your garage, you’ll very likely have a grand time anyway. There are even a couple of nods to movie stars who race; the hero is Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), named for the late Steve McQueen, a racer and racing devotee. And the voice of one of the central characters, Doc Hudson (a Hudson, of course) is provided by the still-alive Paul Newman, who finally hung up his racing togs within the last year.

Lightning is a prize-winning hotshot sponsored by an automotive products company, so built for speed that he doesn’t even have headlights, just stickers representing them. He’s a self-loving egomaniac, utterly convinced of his superiority, given to self-actualization mental chants (“I am speed….”). Lightning has come to believe he doesn’t need to cooperate with his pit crew; he thinks he’s doing it all himself.

The stadium stands are full of other cars (and the steady wink of flashbulbs) for a huge race for the Piston Cup, the hottest prize in this world’s racing community. There’s a big pile-up but Lightning zooms through it, but there’s a photo-finish three-way tie between him, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and veteran The King (Richard Petty). A deciding race will be held in California in a week.
Confident he’ll win, Lightning travels west in his own personal truck, Mack (Pixar regular John Ratzenberger), and doesn’t even notice when a mishap rolls him gently out of Mack and onto a lonely desert highway. Confused—he’s apparently never been anywhere that wasn’t paved to the horizon—he winds up, upset and alone, in the small town of Radiator Springs, on Route 66.

His arrogance results in his literally tearing up the streets; he’s arrested by the sheriff (Michael Wallis) and sentenced by Doc Hudson (Newman) to repave the highway, hauling a tar-encrusted old paving rig. There’s some consolation: a cute Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a lawyer from L.A. who prefers living in this quiet town, and a friendly, buck-toothed hick of a tow truck, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who almost immediately adopts the reluctant Lightning as his best friend.

Also in town are Ferrari-loving Fiat Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), who runs the local tire store, restaurant owner Flo (Jenifer Lewis), and other small-town types. Radiator Springs was once a lively stop along the Mother Road, Route 66, but when the interstate was built nearby, life drained out of the town. Mexican low-rider Ramone (Cheech Marin), for lack of any customers, repaints himself every now and then.

Lightning is pretty scornful of it all—well, almost all, as there IS Sally—but he, of course, has lessons to learn, and we along with him.

Some years ago, director and Pixar head John Lasseter decided his concentration on work was preventing him from bonding as well as he should with his five kids, so his family drove across the country and back. They largely stuck to the “blue roads”—those roads that gently wind across the country—including Route 66. “Cars” is a valentine to that trip and to Route 66; the song, of course, is ultimately heard. (For the second time this year; it turns up at the end of the faintly similar “RV.”)

It’s also about natural beauty, introduced to Lightning by Sally. “Finding Nemo” was more gorgeous, perhaps, but the always-improving Pixar team realizes the beauty of the Southwestern Desert as well as anything other than “Arizona Highways” ever has. The yellows, ochres and oranges of the desert, the buttes, mountains and plains, are almost heart-stoppingly beautiful. (And there’s a nod to the Cadillac Ranch of Amarillo, Texas, which everyone who drives the interstate will recognize.)

There are, of course, plenty of jokes scattered throughout the movie, some of which—like a Japanese newscast, or TV host Jay Limo (guess who does the voice)—come and go very quickly in Pixar’s skilled manner. Most of these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags relate to cars, such as the Cozy Cone motel, which offers Lincoln Continental Breakfasts—and which is built in the shape of road cones, resembling a couple of motels on the real Route 66 which are concrete teepees.

Lightning accidentally learns something surprising about Doc Hudson—he was once a racing car, and won the Piston Cup three times. Racing historians will get the idea; originally stock car races used off-the-assembly line vehicles, and Hudsons were the usual prize winners. “Float like a Cadillac, sting like a Beamer” Lightning and Doc Hudson agree, and then, to his astonishment, Lightning is defeated in a dirt-road race by ol’ Doc.
Lightning does learn to like the small town and the off-the-interstate life, but that race is forever looming in the near distance.

“Cars” is a bit more into Life Lessons than most Pixar movies, but it’s a good vehicle for them. The movie doesn’t really come to life until Lightning winds up in Radiator Springs, and there’s a little strain perceptible in peopling the small town. Sturdy old veteran Sarge (Paul Dooley), a Jeep, has a shop right next to Filmore (George Carlin), an aging Volkswagen hippy bus with flower stickers. Filmore is deeply into natural fuels. This is amusing, but this kind of thing does clutter up the film a little.

Usually, personified cars have headlights for eyes; here, it’s the windshields—and it’s a better choice in terms of design. To go from lively, life-like fish to hard-surface automobiles may seem like a step down, but it’s actually a step up in terms of challenge. The Pixar team has met the challenge very well; it may have been hard to create an acceptable world of living, talking cars, but here it’s nearly perfectly realized. While you watch the movie, obvious questions (who rides IN the cars?) will never occur to you.

As always, the end credits extend the joys of the movie. This time, there aren’t any hilarious if bogus “outtakes,” but what’s there instead is prime—several of the cars attend a drive-in movie. There are tributes to specific businesses and people along Route 66, and to NASCAR champions. Plus the usual “production babies” list of kids born to Pixar staff while the movie was being made.

The movie is presented in ‘scope-like wide screen, and fills up every inch. Sound is especially well used here; all the revving motors sound utterly authentic, as do the crunch of tires on different surfaces, from asphalt to sand. A lot of love of automobiles went into this movie.

It’s always impressive how Pixar movies seem so effortless and light, when they’re the product of the most intricate, complex technology in movie history. Their control increases in complexity and subtlety with eash successive movie, allowing them to render increasingly finer details.

Hollywood has mistakenly come to believe that it’s CGI itself which is the selling point of these movies, but it’s really the skilled artists who employ the technique. Because Pixar’s and other CGI-animated films have been profitable, studios are more ready to finance them than hand-drawn animated features. But John Lasseter is now the head of Disney’s entire animation division, and vows that the future studio output will include traditionally-animated films.

But “Cars” is here now, and crosses the finish line in style, providing lots of humor and heart along the way. Like all Pixar movies, it’s for everyone, hardly just for kids. Easily the best new film of the year so far.

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