And They Rode On in the Friscalating Dusklight
Cars / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | June 9, 2006 | Comments ()
There’s now no shortage of hoopla surrounding a Pixar release. Ever since the studio unveiled Toy Story in 1995, the first feature film to be completely rendered with computer animation, they’ve been on an unstoppable creative hot streak, churning out dependable family films loaded with memorable characters that had corporate partner Disney salivating even as Pixar was taking Disney’s place in the public consciousness as the go-to source for family entertainment. Disney has desperately tried to play catch-up, most noticeably with CGI fare like Chicken Little, but Disney is unable to grasp the simple philosophy that sets Pixar apart from the flock: Namely, that Pixar holds the story in highest regard and lets the animation flow from that. It’s unlikely the company will ever top 2004’s The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s wonderfully crafted take on a postmodern family of superheroes, but John Lasseter’s Cars is a more than worthy addition to the brand. It’s a consistently entertaining comedy that mixes humor aimed at kids and parents with a relentless energy and an almost poignant look at the evolution of America, and Americana, in the 20th century.
Hot-rod race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is an all-star rookie poised to win the coveted Piston Cup. The film opens with a race, and it’s evident from the start that Pixar has once again taken another leap forward with the stunning physics of their animated images. Monsters, Inc. captured the millions of tiny hairs on Sulley’s body, Finding Nemo offered a beautifully fuzzy portrait of undersea life, and The Incredibles brought new depth and texture to land and water. But Cars is a revolution in light, a glistening picture of chrome and paint and sun on the windshield; there’s an effervescence in the way these machines move that makes their personalities immediate and distinct, as well as a palpable joy in watching them soar around the track (on Lightyear tires, of course). Lightning blows out two tires and manages to tie the race with the King (Richard Petty), the noble and long-time champ, and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), the arrogant also-ran who’s out to destroy Lightning because, well, movies like this need a clear-cut villain. Lightning’s an ego-driven kid with dreams of celebrity and women, but Wilson plays him with a cheery innocence that keeps him from being anything more than playfully misguided.
A tie-breaking race is set for a week later in California, but through a series of mishaps, Lightning finds himself stranded in the defunct town of Radiator Springs, surrounded by stretches of empty desert and a piece of Route 66, and it’s here that Lasseter begins to develop his tale. Lasseter also wrote and directed Toy Story and its sequel, as well as A Bug’s Life, and he used each film to explore the tension between the past and the future, between the idyllic times that have shuffled off and the encroaching unknown, as full of possible gloom as it is of happiness and renewal. The introduction of Buzz Lightyear to the peaceful balance of young Andy’s toy room was eventually resolved only when Buzz came around and adapted to the ways of Woody and the rest of the gang. Buzz and Woody didn’t even come to any kind of ideological agreement, but merely bonded because each saved the other’s life. In Cars, Lasseter takes that respect for the past and amplifies into full-blown adulation, as he focuses his rose-colored lens on Radiator Springs and turns it into a stand-in for every once-good thing now lost. The town is full of colorful characters who get along peacefully, and everyone has a place: a doctor, a body shop, a gas station, a motel. Like most portraits of Rockwellian America, it never really existed, but that’s not the point. The point is that it exists here for Lasseter, as the hub of the story and the most important character in the film.
Lightning accidentally tears up the main street when he arrives in Radiator Springs, and after being arrested and impounded, he’s sentenced by Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), acting as judge, to repair the damaged road. At first furious with the punishment and the likelihood that he’ll miss the race, Lightning begins to slowly warm to the townsfolk, including the tow truck, Mater, as in Tow-Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. And here’s where down becomes up, black becomes white, and 2+2= chair; I found myself laughing at Mater’s comic relief. I actually enjoyed a comedic performance by Larry the Cable Guy. I know what the few remaining readers who didn’t just punch their computers are thinking: How? Why? Well, most of it has to do with the fact that Larry’s not doing his material (which I find to be pretty insipid and responsible for all manner of social evils) but reciting Lasseter’s jokes, which tend to be pretty serviceable. But it’s also because, well, Larry fits the film’s profile. The entire story is set in the world of competitive racing, making Cars easily the most country film yet from Pixar or Disney. (The best “Southern” moment comes when Lightning is hit with stage fright before addressing a crowd of fans and sponsors, at which point a faint voice breaks the crowd’s brief silence by shouting “Free Bird!”) The soundtrack has watered-down country-pop group Rascal Flatts covering “Life Is a Highway,” which was already pretty mediocre, as well as two songs from Brad Paisley; even the requisite Randy Newman tune is performed by James Taylor, as Lasseter and company jettison the coastal pop of Newman’s voice for the dulcet tenor of the man who once sang “Sail on home to Jesus, won’t you good girls and boys” as he talked of the virtues of “walking on a country road.” Point being: If the tow truck were voiced by anyone other than Larry, it just wouldn’t work.
Radiator Springs also introduces Lightning to a Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the requisite love interest for family films like this one; unfortunately, it’s never addressed what it is these cars do when they actually hook up, though I’d imagine the mechanics are frightening. In fact, basic reproduction or creation isn’t mentioned once, not even obliquely, as in hearing Lightning say something along the lines of, “I’ve been dreaming of the Piston Cup since I rolled off the assembly line.” Nope. Not a thing. It’s all in line with Lasseter’s idealized world, though there are plenty of other nods to current pop culture, such as the tramp stamp above Sally’s rear bumper that Lightning refers to as a “pinstripe tattoo.” There’s also a brief shot on a TV of the California governor, a Hummer who speaks with a thick Austrian accent. But the funniest metacultural tie-in is Lightning’s agent, Harv, voiced by Jeremy Piven, who tosses off platitudes and Yiddish slang in true Ari Gold style. Unlike the crass overtures from DreamWorks animation, the multilevel jokes here work by being funny, not forcefully blue.
It’s apparent from about four minutes in that the film will end exactly as you think it will. Lightning learns the true meaning of friendship from the cars of Radiator Springs, who show up to help him win the big race. When they finally arrive, Lightning exclaims “I can’t believe this,” but Wilson can’t quite sell the line. Of course he can believe his friends showed up. That’s what they do, especially in stories like this one. And before you know it, the race ends, and regardless of the outcome, you can be sure Lightning becomes a better person in the process.
The main plot of Cars is ultimately irrelevant, or at least would be interchangeable with any of a dozen similar story lines. The heart of the story is Lasseter’s open pining for the way things used to be, when people drove “not to make great time, but to have a great time.” In a nod to Steinbeck, the inhabitants of Radiator Springs refer to Route 66 as the “Mother Road,” and for Lasseter, it’s the strip of highway that gave birth to everything from our love of the automobile to modern America itself. The truest, most heartwarming scene in Cars comes when Lightning repaves the busted street through town and all the shops turn on their newly repaired neon signs, and the cars cruise slowly up the strip while the Chords’ “Sh-Boom” wafts on the night air. If we could slow down enough to see what we’ve been missing, well, life would be a dream, sweetheart.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.