Slowing Down on the Fast Track
I consider the last four Pixar movies to be among the best films of the past ten years, and I've made no secret of my high regard for the studio's often exemplary animated works of tight storytelling, meaningful characterization, and innovation. Thus, I approach every new offering with some amount of nervous reservation. Being at the top of one's game means a fall will probably happen sooner or later.
Pixar's latest movie, Cars, proves that at least the fall doesn't have to be a big one. It doesn't even have to be significant. Cars is a fine movie. That it doesn't quite match the amazing previous movies feels like a minor technical nitpick in the face of the assuredness with which the team delivers its brand of entertainment.
Yet, if I don't write about a nitpick or two, I wouldn't be entirely honest with my reaction. By its very conception, Cars may have been sentenced not to live up to its predecessors. This is the first Pixar movie (although you could make a similar case for A Bug's Life) where the presented animated world could completely stand in for the human world because no direct points of reference to actual humans exist. This causes a creative temptation to rely too much on making the world refer humorously to our real world while not allowing the created world itself to retain a self-justifying logic. Or, to put it another way, such animated universes tend to be less impressive when you feel you can replace the non-human characters with human ones and still, basically, have the same story.
Cars manages to make the most of its concept by not overdoing those one-to-one human world references and by not displaying overt logical discrepencies (unlike, say, the elevators in the world of Shark Tale). But the bigger problem comes from its choice of story, which isn't unique to a living automobile-populated universe. Very simply put, the movie is about a shallow hotshot racer named Lightning McQueen (voice -- and the undisguised persona -- of Owen Wilson) who learns to appreciate a more substantive set of values once he's accidentally stranded in a nowhere town along Route 66. There, the handful of good-hearted residents impart their lessons to him. The plot doesn't require the kind of characters they've created and, more alarmingly, it isn't very original to begin with.
But what's always interesting about Pixar's films is how one can clearly read the psychology behind the stories. For instance, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo conspicuously related the concerns of new parents, and one is naturally led to believe that the lead creative forces behind those movies had been through similar emotional experiences only recently. I imagine, then, that the story of Cars comes from the perspective of people who have accelerated but success-driven lifestyles. None other than the company's field general himself, John Lasseter, directed this one, and I can see it as a check to remind him and the people he works with to stop and smell the roses (the story/co-direction involvement of and dedication to the late Joe Ranft adds poignancy to this thought). It's fitting that the movie focuses on a popular character pressured (by himself and those around him) to stay at the top; that his ego is inflated; and that he requires a reality check. Lasseter might feel that, with their publicly-lauded track record, his team must constantly check themselves, lest they too become Lightning.
Thus, the personal aspect of the storytelling shows through -- it has been the company's forte all along and goes undiminished here. Cars, despite a concept which lends itself to speed and hyperactivity, has a surprisingly patient pace. The middle section slows down enough to, indeed, smell the roses (or, in this movie's case, admire the vistas) -- it's a welcome method of practicing what it preaches, showing confidence in its relative restraint, which allows for the memorable moments to sink in. And once the climax hits, the storytelling method bears its fruit, even as it becomes predictable -- your mind will tell you to expect certain outcomes and events, yet you may find yourself, as I did, trying to hold back some tears as you are encouraged to believe in the possibility of eliciting true good will and selflessness from a heart which had kept these characteristics locked away before.
Cars is also a technical marvel -- it's breathtaking just to look at and admire the details during a good number of scenes -- but, as in the case of almost any movie, this lends it a level of strength that feels more external to its success than the strength of its story execution. And, perhaps for the first time, the story isn't strong enough on its own to carry much of that execution's weight. This means the storyteller must do more of the work this time; lucky for Cars, then, that its storytellers happen to be Lasseter and Pixar, possibly the best in the business today.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar and rated "G" as suitable for all ages.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.