Pixar has had an untarnished string of box office triumphs, but the chief creative force of their initial success has been absent from the director's chair for seven years. John Lasseter finally took the reins again for Cars, and while there was little question that the film would succeed with him at the helm, there was also little chance that he would deviate from the formula he created.
Cars tells the story of young hotshot racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he learns valuable life lessons on his way to fame and glory. He starts off the film as a brash, headstrong youngster ready to take on the racing world by himself before hitting an unexpected detour into a small, forgotten town called Radiator Springs. The nearly deserted town is populated by colorful locals blissfully happy with their lives in the slow lane. Through plot contrivances, McQueen finds himself stuck in the town as a virtual prisoner until he completes tasks assigned by the crotchety leader, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). This sets up McQueen's forced appreciation of the little things in life, the importance of friendship, and listening to his elders.
About that story though, it seems very familiar. Let’s see: a cocky new model runs into a group of misfits who exist in their own isolated microcosm and teach him to appreciate friendship and the simple way of life. I liked it better when it was called Toy Story. The plot is extremely straightforward and shopworn, and it's stretched to the ungodly length of nearly two hours, but somehow Lasseter still manages to imbue enough magic in the film's surroundings that it's worth the trip. From tiny VW bugs buzzing around the town like flies, to scenic drives through gorgeous wide-open countryside, to the foibles of each of the town's quirky residents, Lasseter brings the car world to life as a fully-formed creation that feels lived-in and real.
There's only so much he can do with cars though, and that highlights the biggest weakness of the film. While every other title in the Pixar library has mass appeal, the subject matter of cars, especially related to NASCAR racing, immediately limits the potential audience. It's not really a racing picture at its heart, but the marketing campaign clearly highlights the racing action and downplays the core Radiator Springs story. It's hard to imagine little Suzie or her mother having any interest in a Lightning McQueen toy, no matter how likeable and flexible he may appear in the film. Large swaths of this country won't relate to the racing or the small town life. And how do you explain and sell US car culture to the rest of the world? No matter how good the story and characters are, the film had a tremendous liability from the initial concept and smacks of being primarily a passion project for Lasseter.
In addition to the retread story, there’s another Pixar hallmark regrettably still in play: big googly eyes on all of the characters. They’re less round than normal since they’re technically all windshields, but they give the characters a Playskool feel when many of us are tired of the norm and ready to move up to Hot Wheels. One of the most refreshing things about The Incredibles was that it didn’t seem like a Pixar film, largely due to the more mature subject matter and the toned-down eyes. There’s nothing wrong with chasing the kids market, but we already have more than enough talking animal pictures crowding that segment while the “grown-ups” get nothing except occasional niche Japanese imports. Pixar has the best technical and creative skills in the business, so it’s discouraging to see them take a step backwards here rather than really advancing what can be accomplished with an animated film.
The DVD highlights Pixar’s strength and experimentation in animated shorts through the inclusion of the stellar "One Man Band." It’s completely wordless, conveys a simple story, and relies on sight gags, but the presentation is so non-Pixar that it’s a revelation of the goodness that can still come out of the studio. The short has a unique art style that looks almost painted, and the character designs look nothing like Pixar creations, exactly the type of innovative approach they should embrace for a full-length feature. The rest of the DVD extras are fairly standard and uninspired, including a so-so new Cars short from Lasseter along with brief features on the inspiration for Cars.
Written by Caballero Oscuro