Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In Theaters: Cars

One of these days, Pixar is going to make a bad movie and we'll all be too busy running from the giant radioactive space ants to notice. For many reasons I hope that day is far off. Which is my flashy way of saying that I enjoyed CARS quite a bit. It's one of their smaller-scale pictures, low-key and sort of quiet. But it's a great story, well-told, funny, and perfectly accessible to pedestrians and non-racing-fans.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is an ambitious race car who, at the start of the film, is racing for the coveted Piston Cup and angling for a juicy sponsorship deal at the same time. However, he, retiring veteran "The King" (Richard Petty), and rival Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) all tie for third, and a tiebreaker race in California is immediately scheduled. While making the trip, Lightning gets bumped off the Interstate and onto Route 66, and the decrepit town of Radiator Springs, where he manages to tear up the road while attempting to outrun the sheriff (Michael Wallis.) Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the town's mayor/judge/etc. sentences him to repair the road, and in the midst of the arduous task, Lightning, still suffering from an arrogant superstar attitude, manages to get to know the colorful locals, such as Mater the tow truck (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) and the lovely (by automotive standards) Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). He starts to learn a few things about slowing down, appreciating the past, and generally not being a jerk.

The moralistic element of the movie weighs a little heavier than in other Pixar releases, its lessons a bit more explicit. It's sentimental by nature, but achieves the right level of sincerity, particularly when it takes the time to talk about how the growth of the Interstates killed the old Route 66 experience, and the towns alongside it, how the old roads went with the land instead of cutting straight through it and drivers (or in this case the cars) learned to appreciate the journey more than the destination. Of course, right now, just cruising or taking the long way is a luxury many drivers can't afford, which makes the loss all the more notable. And naturally a theme like this works on the broader level; our demand for speed and efficiency is reflected in a lot of things besides our driving. It's a message aimed as much at the adults in the audience as the children.

Appropriately enough, the narrative itself can be a bit slow and rambling at times. There aren't the same kind of dramatic twists here that you'd see in FINDING NEMO and MONSTERS, INC., instead the plot develops simply, straightforwardly. The downside of this is that it's easier to see where it's going and anticipate some of the developments, though there are surprises along the way. The project is partly carried by its excellent voice work- I may not be a huge fan of Larry the Cable Guy, but he's perfectly cast as Mater, who steals several scenes. Owen Wilson makes Lightning as arrogant as he needs to be without being unlikeable, and both Newman and Hunt match him well. Some of the supporting parts seem underdeveloped, though everyone gets some chance to do their schtick. There are some great bit parts and cameo appearances, including Car Talk's Tom and Ray Magliozzi as Lightning's low-rent sponsors, several racing stars and Pixar vet John Ratzenberger.

The animation is up to Pixar's usual standards, being not just technically well-done but outright beautiful in places (especially during night scenes, where the street lights and neon give the chrome-plated protagonists a lovely glow.) There are all sorts of great background details, from desert mountains that resemble 50s fins to insect-sized "Bugs" to various in-jokes for car enthusiasts.

CARS is not the most memorable of films, but it's hugely enjoyable for what it does. The film has the sad distinction of being the last work by Joe Ranft, the co-director, co-writer, voice of two characters and general story guru for Pixar, who was killed in a car crash late last year. (One of his parts, "Red" the timid firetruck, seems to have been abbreviated as a result.) In the midst of this actual loss, the studio has crafted a fine tale about appreciating what we have and what we used to have, instead of always rushing forward.

Written by Dan Fogelman, John Lassetter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, and Jorgen Klubien.
Directed by John Lassetter and Joe Ranft

Grade: A-

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