By Pixar's own standard of measurement, I think Cars, the studio's latest technological marvel of computer-generated animation, has to be deemed a disappointment. Stacked up next to the peerless action-comedy of The Incredibles, which also boasted some trenchant social criticism as ballast working hand-in-hand with some very sharp James Bondian parody and a vivid roster of characters (just thinking of Q stand-in Edna Mode, modeled after famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head and voiced by director Brad Bird, still cracks me up two years later), or the head-spinningly clever, emotionally rich and resonant Monsters, Inc., there just doesn't seem to be much going on in director/cowriter John Lasseter's latest turbo-charged creation that isn't readily visible on its gleaming surface.
Cars offers a lot of validation for baby boomer viewers (I'm one of them) primed to wax nostalgic about the passing away of the Sunday-drive car culture and the small towns that dried up as the swath of "progress" cut through the heart of all those countryside scenic routes with faster, more efficient interstate asphalt. And, as David Edelstein observed in his review, the brilliance of Pixar's design allows for an understanding of how even metal cars, through their anthropomorphized qualities and subtleties of "facial" expression and gestures, are not strictly rigid matter, but are given to a certain plasticity, a life-liness that underlines how easily car owners in the real world can come to project personalities onto their own treasured vehicles.
For younger viewers, especially those primed by the relentless preemptive-strike marketing, Cars is an undeniable, inevitable treat. My six and four-year-old daughters, who have seen the film twice, seem much more forgiving of its meandering midsection-- egocentric race car sensation Lightning McQueen gets stuck in an off-road burg and learns lessons about friendship and the value of gearing down life's hectic pace-- than they might if the movie weren't such a candy-colored wonder of movement and characterization. And when it comes to lessons, the one the movie leaves youngsters with-- about placing a premium on those friendships even at the cost of winning the big race-- is rather unexpected and sweet when considering the equivocation of victory with happiness (and happy endings) in almost every other avenue of pop culture available to them. (It seems strange to recall, in 2006, that as by-the-numbers feel-good as was Sylvester Stallone's original Rocky (1976), his working-class hero actually lost the big fight.) Unfortunately, for adults who wouldn't mind reveling in the kind of thematic resonance that was afforded them in The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. and even Finding Nemo, it doesn't get a whole lot more interesting in Cars than learning to stop and smell the roses.
But if the narrative thrust of Cars (seemingly cribbed and adapted for the V-8 set from the 1991 Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood) ultimately reads as a misstep by the heretofore frighteningly surefooted Pixar braintrust, that is not the same thing as saying the movie is a wash. Whereas Pixar's prevous features have all represented technological advances employed to amplify their own sharp storytelling instincts, the technology really is pretty much the whole show here, and within that paradoxical limitation Cars ultimately ends up (for me, at least) most compelling as a visual exploration of the joy of driving. John Lasseter could never have predicted the conundrum created by releasing his paean to motoring at a time in history when filling up at the gas pump, once considered practically a birthright by Americans in the past, routinely ends up costing between $60-$100 a tankful. But as firing up the family roadster becomes more expensive and looked upon less as a right than an economically gilded privilege, the timing of Cars may prove to be better than it seems-- the movie could end up, depending on how grim and costly reality ultimately reveals itself to be, taking on elements of vicarious wish fullfillment through the propulsory joys of its combustion-engine protagonists. Its nostalgia for simpler, slower days could be transferred to nostalgia for the freewheeling act of driving itself.
What Cars, in fact, does best, is render those landscapes that Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater and Doc Hudson tool through with such carefree abandon with awe-inspiring, and just plain inspired, detail-- the Monument Valley-esque rock formations that surround the isolated town of Radiator Springs, where the majority of the film's story plays out, look suspiciously like Edsel grilles and the fins-up line of abandoned luxury rides that make up the ghostly roll call at the Cadillac Ranch . And as they move through these settings, the cars, while only resembling actual vehicles in an pleasingly exaggerated form, have a believable physical relationship to the landscape and the road-- they bounce and jostle and bend and slide and wiggle and glide down the highway in a manner that not only approximates the sensation of realistic, relateable movement, but also conveys the singular happiness, the sense of possibility that a driver can feel when faced with the open road and all the time in the world, or at least a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do till bedtime. And Lasseter almost offhandedly offers up perhaps the most spectacular series of nighttime driving set pieces I can recall seeing in a movie. A sequence which finds Mater, the affable tow truck, taking McQueen out for a star-lit evening of tractor tripping is played out amid the seductive shades of black that make up the velvety textue of a nighttime desert. (The sloshing of half-filled gas tanks as the victimized vehicles swivel backward on their rear wheels is perhaps the year's best, funniest sound effect.) Pixar achives here the sort of rich visual quality, through sheer technical imagination, that Michael Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe achieved by using high-definition video to illuminate the receding gradations of darkness in the Los Angeles night in their crime thriller Colatteral. But even more impressive is the sequence when McQueen, after falling out of his transport truck, spins off ever further away from the interstate and into the beautiful blackness of an unfamiliar nightscape, down a two-lane highway surrounded by patches of emptiness illuminated only briefly by darting, panicked headlights. Here Lasseter gets at the heart of the latent mystery, the allure of the aloneness, and the fear of not knowing exactly what's ahead, that is the night ride, where the only other traffic around is comprised of the songs, and the voices, running through your head as you contemplate the road to come, and the world, which seems to simultaneously have been stretched out into a void of darkness and reduced to the rushing pavement revealed by the limited throw of your high beams.
These are fleeting pleasures, to be sure, and they can't really serve as a satisfying replacement for the narrative excitement of a well-told story that good animation, computer-generated or hand-drawn, can sometimes serve well. But they are pleasures that are unique enough to be notable, I think, and they breathe a little life into a story which too often coasts on very familiar fumes. Cars seems tame alongside the more frantic, funnier and satirically observant Over the Hedge, and it might get trumped again this coming weekend, if the advance word on Monster House is to be believed. But that's not to say it's a disaster either. A movie about soulful shiny metal objects that has itself been accused of being a bit too beholden to the assembly line, Cars doesn't entirely lack soul-- it's just not to be found under the hoods of the movie's four-wheeled friends. Instead, you'll see it, and feel it, in the world Lasseter and company have created for their big-eyed cars to cruise around in, and under the blanket of darkness that envelops them into those purplish-black, beautiful nightscapes. This truly is a world where a kid, and an adult, can play.
(A more welcoming view of Cars as a whole can be found in That Little Round-Headed Boy's wholehearted appreciation. As for my own piece, the excellent photo illustrations that I had lined up have once again postponed due to Blogger's cranky picture-posting service. Hear that snap? That was the last straw...)