Bursting on the scene with 'Toy Story' in 1996, Pixar has enjoyed an unparalleled run of unstoppable hit movies. 'A Bug's Life,' 'Monsters, Inc.,' 'Toy Story 2,' 'Finding Nemo,' 'The Incredibles' -- all mega-hits, all critically acclaimed, all bestowed with too many awards to count (among them a bucketload of Oscars). Indeed, with such a strong track record, it would seem that the studio just can't step wrong.
With the arrival of its 2006 film 'Cars,' however, comparatively speaking the studio seemed to hit their first speed bump. Make no mistake -- the film was still a blockbuster, but this time around, the critics were a little less fervent in their praise, the box office wasn't quite as good, and simply put, 'Cars' failed to capture the public's imagination the way every Pixar movie had before, leaving some to speculate that perhaps Pixar wasn't so invincible after all.
But while 'Cars' may not be a 'Toy Story' or a 'Finding Nemo,' compared to 99 percent of the dreck that passes for animated fare these days, it's fantastic -- a clever, witty, beautifully conceived and executed charmer filled with plenty of heartfelt emotion and genuine excitement. It's also another multi-layered Pixar story that has a timely and important theme.
The film itself imagines an alternate reality that's just like ours, only populated by cars, not people. Into this magical world comes hotshot roadster Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), who is living life in the fast lane as a big-time celebrity on the racing circuit. He's rather arrogant, actually -- unscrupulous in the rules of the sport, demoralizing towards his crew, and forever lusting after the almighty dollar of corporate sponsorship. Still, like all great Pixar heroes, Lightning may have his considerable flaws, but he is fundamentally a decent guy (er, automobile)... especially when the pedal gets pushed to the metal.
Which is exactly what happens when an unexpected detour leaves Lightning stranded in Radiator Springs, a long-forgotten ghost town hiding along Route 66. Lightning will get himself into plenty of trouble as he tries to find his way out, eventually landing in the impound lot with plenty of damage. Only the town's cast of colorful characters can help him: there's the ornery town doctor and judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman); the Ferrari-fixated owners of a local tire shop, Luigi (Tony Shaloub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni); the aging hippie VW bus Fillmore (George Carlin), and of course the inevitable love interest, the rather well-rounded (ahem) Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). For the first time, Lightning is forced to slow down and enjoy the ride, not the destination -- but will he leave Radiator Springs a changed car, or still hungry only for the selfish pursuits of fame and fortune?
Much criticism has been leveled at 'Cars.' Lightning McQueen isn't likable enough. The characters are too one-note. The story is too preachy. And, most consistently, the film is too long (unusual for an animated film, 'Cars' clocks in at nearly two hours). Fair enough, but none of these things really bothered me. So what if Lightning is a bit of a jerk at the beginning? All the better to make his eventual redemption genuinely moving. Same goes for the more heavy-handed aspects of the story -- yes, the theme of stopping-to-smell-the-roses is not as sublime as other Pixar films, but it's also far less mawkish than even some of Disney's most revered classics. As for the pacing, the film is admittedly overlong, but I still admire Pixar for valuing story above all else -- if it wasn't for the film's leisurely second act in Radiator Springs, Lightning's choices during the climax would have had zero resonance. As it is, the end of the big race may be a foregone conclusion, but we've become so invested in these cars that by the time it's all over, it packs a far great punch than you might expect.
Story aside, 'Cars' is unquestionably another visual tour de force from Pixar. The attention to detail, the photo-realistic surfaces, the fanciful touches of visual whimsy -- every frame is simply a joy to behold. Pixar is also expert at etching out memorable characters through small asides, from the way Lightning's tongue droops ever so slightly out of his mouth like a dog, to the wonderfully-rendered intricacies of the various denizens in Radiator Springs. The voice talent is also superb, with Wilson, Hunt, Shaloub and particularly Newman (in what the actor has indicated is likely to be his final film role) creating truly unique, three-dimensional characters. It's this sense of a complete vision that really sets Pixar miles ahead of its competitors, and proves without a doubt that, if made with heart, CGI filmmaking can be anything but cold.
Compared to such undisputed classics like 'Toy Story' and 'Finding Nemo,' 'Cars' will likely always be viewed as something of a lesser effort in the Pixar canon. But if only every "lesser" movie was so filled with imagination, passion, heart and sheer humanity. Faults aside, 'Cars' is fun, clever and highly entertaining ride, and one that's well worth taking despite the naysayers. Don't let it pass you by on Blu-ray.
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