In anticipation of Ratatouille, I decided to catch up on my one gap in the Pixar oeuvre and watch Cars.
Cars is widely perceived as Pixar’s weakest offering to date, particularly compared to the comapny’s previous two works of genius. I can’t say that I disagree with the consensus, but Cars is still better than any other major animated feature of the last year, certainly miles ahead of the kludgy chaos of Meet the Robinsons or the pop culture death spiral that is the Shrek series.
Cars, I think, has a few problems, and none of them are Larry the Cable Guy. The “comedy stylings” of Mr. Guy usually make me feel like I’m somewhere between drinking day old coffee sprinkled with bacon bits and water boarding, but for what it’s worth, I liked him in Cars. Mater is no Dory—let’s make that very clear—but he’s appropriate for the story and he manages to be a non-annoying hick.
The real problem is that our protagonist, Lightning McQueen, is a jerk, and not in the way that Toy Story‘s Woody was. Woody may have gotten overly comfortable in his prime position as Favorite Toy, but he was also shown to be a compassionate, level-headed leader of the household. Buzz Lightyear was obviously a delusional headcase, a clear danger to the toys of Andy’s room, smitten blind by Buzz’s swagger and blinking lasers. Toy Story‘s early scripts featured nothing of this more compassionate rendition of Woody, and the majority of the rewrites ensured that above all else, Woody wouldn’t come off as a jerk, because no one’s going to sympathize with the guy who had it coming. So, the trouble with Lightning McQueen is that for the first half of the movie he’s an unredeemable, egomaniacal hotrod who literally has to be chained to his punishment to learn his lessons.
Pixar isn’t exactly known for surprise twists in its plots. Of course Woody and Buzz are going to reconcile their various issues and live happily ever after. Of course Marlin is going to find Nemo and loosen up in the process. Of course the Parr family is going to embrace their powers again. Still, the plot arc of Cars is so telegraphed that it’s one of the only Pixar movies I’d ever dare to call boring. I didn’t much care for Monsters Inc., but I did sit through it genuinely wondering how things would turn out. Not so with Cars.
On an artistic level the movie maintains Pixar’s impeccable reputation for beauty. It’s filled with all the tiny details and rendered with all the fidelity that sets a Pixar movie apart from the pretenders. Ultimately, however, I think you can only make a Honda emote so much. Personifying the cars is a cute idea, and I think it would have been great for a short, but in the long term it’s hard to feel the characters. The eyes, pasted onto the windshields as they are, come off a little flat, and the bodies are unusually constrained by the full commitment to automobilehood.
Toy Story was mostly limited to the goings-on of a suburban bedroom, but in the great quest to survive the move to Andy’s new house, you got the impression of a much bigger world. Monsters Inc. showed us that the boogeyman in your closet is but one worker in the bustling scare business. Finding Nemo exposed us to a veritable ecosystem of characters and landscapes. The Incredibles gave us an entire population of superheroes to enjoy. In contrast, the world of Cars feels extremely small. There’s the tiny town of Radiator Springs, and then there’s the glamor of California’s Piston Cup, but you don’t get the impression that there’s much in between. At times I felt like I was watching a diorama.
So, again, overall it’s still pretty good. It still has that certain Pixar charm, but it’s just not as amazing as usual. I have high hopes for Ratatouille.