Thursday, June 30, 2011


Now that Cars 2 has broken Pixar’s winning streak with the decisiveness with which Ivan Drago broke Apollo Creed, the reputation of Cars (never great) has plummeted. Beyond all else Cars may go down in history as the movie that allowed Cars 2 to happen. Which may be a nigh unforgivable sin for animation fans.

The saving grace of Cars is that for all of the criticism Pixar has taken for mercenarily turning it into a cash and merch machine, there is nothing mercenary about the first movie. Indeed it is a bizarrely personal film, one that sums up what drives John Lassetter as an artist as surely as My Neighbor Totorro does for Hayao Miyaziki, containing his obsession with vanishing Americana, the design elements of the fifties, and his obsession with the passing of time. 

There is little that is inherently commercial about Cars. If you set aside any (and I do mean any) element of the film for more then five seconds it becomes a frankly bizarre. Then there are The Cars themselves, nothing inherently cuddly. I think the fact that they have imprinted on every child under six and are more or less guaranteed to send them into rapturous glee, is nothing more or less then a freakish accident. There’s no getting around that it’s a creepy design, which unlike most character designs get stranger the longer you look at it (Stare at the headlights when any two cars are talking and you’ll see a weird face within a face. Once you see it you can’t unsee it).

So while Cars does have many sins, not least among them the desire to make “Ka-chow” into a national catchphrase, the fact that it does seem like nothing more or less then a mindboggling expensive remake of Doc Hollywood enacted with Cars (which come to think of it sounds like a weird Lars Von Trier experiment) and giving Larry The Cable Guy a platform with which he can communicate directly to and dumb down the nations children. It remains a strangely fascinating film to watch.

For one thing the animation is beautiful. I mean yeah its Pixar that’s to be expected. But the way that Lassetter and crew lay out the landscape of the American Southwest is the type of imagery that makes the term eye candy inadequate. The rich painterly color palette, clean line design, lighting effects, and creative camera work during the racing scenes all combine to make Cars a rich experience even when what is actually happening on screen is less then scintillating.

Then there is of course Paul Newman, in his last performance. There is no such thing as a moment when Paul Newman is on screen that is entirely unenjoyable. But Cars isn’t simply a phoned in performance. Newman lends more gravitas then seems strictly possible to his role of The Hudson Hornet. Though Cars does not have the same amount of emotional intensity as the other Pixar films, Newman’s performance which has a very real streak of bitterness to his performance, which keeps the movie from being empty.

So yes Cars has many flaws, a bizarre world that makes no sense (or at least not the kind of sense that isn’t horrifying. I wouldn’t be the first to wonder if there are not piles of human corpses just off screen) and an under used supporting cast. Cars may be the least of the Pixar films but it is still a Pixar film. Less perhaps then the sum of its better parts, but those better parts on their own are often wonderful.


Also New Son Of Danse Macabre up. It's Lovecraftrific.


le0pard13 said...

Excellent look at this, Bryce. CARS was enjoyable, and bizarrely so. The American Southwest never looked so great, plus it has some great references to our automobile culture. Is it my fave Pixar film? Far from it. But, like you said, it's a Pixar film. That counts for something.

CARS 2 was also enjoyable, but wholly intended for the tikes (and the merchandizing machine that is Disney), IMO. Did I hate it? No, but I don't have an immediate yearning to see it again and soon (like I had with other Pixar films). It was a nice touch in the film they didn't ignore Paul Newman's character from the previous film and offered a decent tribute.


Adrian said...

I don't know if I agree that the commercial success of Cars is that much of an accident. Granted, I live in a very specific area of America where the audience this film seemed to be directed at exists - The fathers and some mothers of these kids are huge fans of anything with a motor, and are very fast to push that same love into their children. This movie was always heavily aimed at the John Deere and Nascar purists from the beginning (hence, Larry the Cable Guy) and it paid off in spades.

Everything else is very nail on the head. The visuals are gorgeous, and it's a sloppy-but-personal film in every other aspect. Great read, Bryce.

BRENT said...

I'm with you all the way as Cars is far from the poor feature many would have us believe. It has flaws yes but most movies do in one way or another.
I agree to with Leopard13 as they did do a nice tribute to Newman which I commented on in my own review.

Budd said...

now that you point it out, it is like they designed the headlights to be eyes and then decided it wasn't human enough and gave them eyes on the windshield, but never took away the headlight eyes.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Le0: Yeah now that It's been established that its a step below the rest of Pixar I'm actually more interested in seeing Cars 2, just for the animation. I mean it has Bruce Campbell how bad could it be? Glad to hear they don't ignore Newman's passing.

@Adrian: Thanks Adrian, I didn't really grow up in Car Culture but I can definitely see how it would appeal to that segement. I mean it actually was able to make Nascar style racing seem exciting. Which is no mean feat.

@ BRENT: Thanks alot Brent. I'll check it out.

@ Budd: Yeah I seem to remember reading an interview with Lassetter where he said that he told all the artists to design the characters specifically not using the headlights for eyes since that was how all other animated cars had been drawn.

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