Monday, June 12, 2006

Review by Sombrero Grande

I think it’s really interesting to witness some movie reviewers out there are trying to dub Cars Pixar’s first flop. They complain about the movie being predictable and moving at a “turgid” pace. Yes, from the first few minutes of the film--heck, the film’s trailer--you can safely assume that the film’s hotshot rookie racecar, Lightning McQueen, is going to learn to slow down and appreciate things like friends over the media spotlight. And yes, the film does take developments at a slower pace, even during the race sequences. But I think the fact that eludes these reviewers is...that’s the whole point. The movie isn’t about racing to the end to find out what happens and then go home. If you’re that type of person, then you already know how the movie is going to end so don’t bother wasting your oh so precious time reading the rest of this review. Just leave. Good-bye. Now for the rest of you, you’re sure to understand that this movie makes the point that life isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey. And the way that the story in Cars unfolds embodies that. Lightning McQueen gets lost on the way to a career-making race in L.A. and gets stuck in an old Route 66 town called Radiator Springs. The place is nearly a ghost town, only populated by a few colorful characters eager for any business that comes their way ever since the new highway virtually took them off the road map. If you’re not in a rush to sprint to the end of the movie you’re sure to find much to enjoy along the way, like the great vocal performances or little visual touches and “inside” jokes the folks at Pixar have worked into the film.

Take a look at the way the desert canyon walls take on automotive styling. Get a good, close look at the bugs buzzing around the fluorescent lights; they’re Volkswagen Beetles. Keep your eyes peeled for clouds that take on the appearance of tire tracks streaking through the sky. This is a fantasy world entirely populated by cars. From the previews and trailers I saw, I thought that fact would bug me. In the final film it didn’t. The world of Cars doesn’t come across as some kind of post-apocalyptic future where the cars all rose up and dispensed with the humans to rule the roads on their own; this is a world where even nature itself has automobiles on the brain. It’s like getting absorbed into the subconscious of an auto mechanic or automotive engineer, one who’s got gasoline figuratively pumping through his veins. It’s obvious director John Lasseter loves cars and his enthusiasm projected through this film is infectious.

Take a close listen to the voices you hear in the film. Unlike a DreamWorks animated feature where the voice cast gets the main media push with story coming in second, Pixar quietly chooses voice talent that works in or out of the spotlight. Sure, Owen Wilson and Paul Newman are easily recognizable but it’s their vocal performances that transcend the names on the billboards. Wilson’s performance is better here than he’s been in any of the crappy big budget movies I’ve seen him in lately and Paul Newman gives great emotive depth to a character whose stoic visage wouldn’t initially lead one to believe he’s anything but a stock character. As for the other voice actors, Larry the Cable Guy seems to have a voice made for being a cartoon character; it just took Pixar to make him one. Perpetually on the Pixar payroll, Bonnie Hunt and John Ratzenberger show again why they continue to get invited back for movie after movie by disappearing into their characters. Michael Keaton gives just the right amout of Beetlejuice-like cockiness to Lightning’s main racing rival while one of my favorite actors, Tony Shalhoub, channels the voice of Antonio from Wings as an Italian tire merchant. For The Incredibles, Pixar pulled Public Radio’s Sarah Vowell to voice Violet, and for Cars, they’ve tapped the “Tappet Brothers,” Click and Clack (Ray and Tom Magliozzi) in an inspired bit of casting to play a pair of rusty old wrecks selling Rust-eze bumper ointment. We’ve heard the voices of Cheech Marin (playing a low-rider with a penchant for new paint jobs) and George Carlin (a hippie VW wagon) in cartoons before, essentially in the same character types before too, but they still make it fun. Hearing Marin’s read of the line, “oh dude, are you crying?” cracked me up and hearing Carlin’s voice hawking organic fuel or dizzily spewing government conspiracy theories is really a kick. On a side note, even though the cast of Cars is quite big, Pixar learned from their misstep with A Bug’s Life of trying to give EVERY character an arc. Here, only a few central characters get the arc treatment while the supporting, rather one-dimensional characters (like Marin’s and Carlin’s) are simply allowed to excel at being just that. A handful of real-life racers drop in for a quick line or two to appease the NASCAR fans in the audience and surprisingly (and THANKFULLY) there’s no stilted awkwardness of performance that usually accompanies casting a sports celebrity in a feature film. *cough*Space Jam*cough*anything with Mike Ditka*cough*

Inside jokes are a staple of Pixar’s films and in Cars they’re so numerous that they really border on being cheeky. Dinoco, the big sponsor that Lightning wants to woo, is the owner of the gas station where Woody and Buzz were separated from Andy in Toy Story. Lightning’s number is 95, the year that Toy Story premiered. Instead of Goodyear tires, all the race cars sport Lightyear tires. Look quick to see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance of the birds from Pixar’s short For the Birds perched on a phone line just off the main highway. There are several nods to Emeryville, the city that houses Pixar Animation Studios, and there’s a veritable bonanza of Pixar nods that take place after the final credits are allowed to roll for a bit.

It seems to me that the critics I discussed earlier may be the types that are likely to leave a movie theater the moment the closing credits begin to roll, regardless of whether or not anything is still happening on screen. I couldn’t believe the number of people in the theater where I saw Cars who immediately jumped out of their seats the moment the first credit rolled up, as if they really had something else more important to run off to. Almost as if it were a test to see if the audience had learned anything from the story’s lesson about slowing down to appreciate things more, Pixar left in some really funny bits a ways into the credits to reward those who were able to just sit and wait and appreciate. If you’re a person of the impatient persuasion and yet insisted on reading all the way through my review, there’s a mention of what you’ll miss (or did miss) by walking out early in the spoiler section below. For the rest of you, enjoy a leisurely drive to your local theater...or a theater a bit farther down the road, perhaps a road you haven’t even been down before, and catch a screening of Cars. While it may not top The Incredibles, Toy Story or Finding Nemo, Cars is still an exceptionally clever and remarkably fun film that’s well worth a test-drive.


During the credits, Pixar parodies several of their earlier films with an “all-car” cast, complete with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Dave Foley reprising their vocal roles. (Note to toy manufacturers: I really, REALLY want the toy car versions of Woody, Buzz and Hamm from “Toy Car Story.” Really.) Considering this was made during the turbulent time when Pixar’s fate was unsure--would the company stay paired with Disney or strike out on their own to find a new distributor--this almost seemed like a farewell montage to some of the characters Disney might have walked away from an unsuccessful bargaining table with.


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