Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Superb "Cars" Hydroplanes on Nostalgia

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 127 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

Cars (2006)
Running time: 116 minutes (1 hour, 56 minutes)
DIRECTOR: John Lasseter
WRITERS: Dan Fogelman, Philip Loren, and Kiel Murray; additional screenplay material: Robert L. Baird and Dan Gerson; from a story by John Lasseter, Jorgen Klubien, and Joe Ranft
PRODUCER: Darla K. Anderson
EDITOR: Ken Schretzmann
Academy Award nominee

ANIMATION/COMEDY/FAMILY/SPORTS with elements of action, drama, and romance

Starring: (voices) Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, Richard Petty, Jeremy Piven, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, and Lynda Petty

If that’s possible considering what they’ve already done, Disney/Pixar’s latest computer animated feature film, Cars, is a technical improvement over their previous work. It’s easy to see why so many consider Pixar Animation Studios the gold standard in computer animation. The pity is that the only thing holding this technically and artistically exceptional and pleasurable animated film from greatness is a less than compelling story grounded in dewy-eyed nostalgia.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot rookie race car trying to win the Piston Cup Championship (similar to NASCAR). On his way to a championship race in California, Lighting makes an unexpected detour down the famous Route 66 and finds himself in the sleepy burg of Radiator Springs, where he meets the town’s eccentric automotive denizens. Self-absorbed and snobby of what he considers lesser cars, Lightning has to repair the town’s only road after he damages it.

The time he spends “prisoner” in Radiator Springs allows him to get to know the other cars, including Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a rusty tow truck who becomes Lightning’s trusty friend, and Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a snazzy Porsche who at first is Lightning’s rival, but later becomes the friend who helps him see the simple beauty of Radiator Springs. And maybe he’ll learn that there are things more important than championships and fame.

I think many viewers will be shocked to find that the racing sequences, especially the Piston Championship Cup race that opens the film, capture the feel of watching NASCAR-style racing. It has all the ferocity, intensity, organized chaos, the spectacular crashes and wild spins off the course, the rumbling and shaking, etc. However, most of Cars’ narrative takes place in Radiator City. By architecture and design, this small town is like stepping back into the postwar era that roughly covers from about 1945 to 1965. Cars tries to recapture this small town era of neon-lit drive-in diners and spanking new motels just off a highway like Route 66. The Western landscapes and the golden backdrops of desert landscapes, dusty roads, pastoral skies, and marvelous rock formations transport the viewer back to some kind of midwestern idyll. This is the kind of “old America” that Hollywood likes – small towns where things moved slowly and everyone knew everyone.

That’s where the fault in Cars lies. It’s a nostalgia piece; it’s more longing than it is a narrative – a story with a universal message, which Pixar’s previous films have had. For instance, in Finding Nemo, an overprotective father fights unceasingly to save the only thing left of his family, a handicapped son, and learns that he will gradually have to let go as his son grows into his own person. In Cars, Lighting McQueen is just a dumb kid – arrogant, smug, lacking in humility; that is true, but he’s ultimately a dumb harmless kid. What’s compelling about that? The central idea behind Cars is that Lightning must embrace the simple life of a small town as a balance against his celebrity status. Balance is a good message, and that’s cute and all, but ultimately, the storytellers, Pixar, are being nostalgic for a time most of them are probably too young to remember. They’re yearning for a lifestyle that never existed in the ideal fashion it’s usually presented as in pop culture – this romanticized version of mid-century American history.

They try to sell us this wonderful world (that still exists in TV Land) using a variety of ethnic stereotypes blended into a politically-correct collection of townsfolk that couldn’t have lived together in a real small town like Radiator Springs: Italians with heavy accents, a hippie, a taciturn former military officer, a sassy black woman named Flo who sounds like Aretha Franklin (but is voiced by Jenifer Lewis), a flashy Latino, an affable redneck rogue, etc. It’s a multicultural cast of village idiots. Still, Cars actually makes for a very entertaining tale of rustic charm versus the fast life of celebrity. I could certainly feel the old-timey charm tugging at my heart. Only Pixar through the magic of their eye-catching achievements in animation could make such preening nostalgia charming and enjoyable eye candy. Cars has spectacular animation painted in so many vivid colors that it dazzles the eyes just the way a Pixar flick should.

8 of 10

Saturday, June 10, 2006

2007 Academy Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song” (Randy Newman for the song "Our Town") and “Best Animated Feature Film of the Year” (John Lasseter)

2007 BAFTA Awards: 1 nomination: “Best Animated Feature Film” (John Lasseter)

2007 Golden Globes: 1 win: “Best Animated Film”


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