Finding Pixar: Cars (2006)

Cars

This is the seventh part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

While the show has clearly gone downhill in recent years, I do have a soft spot for “Saturday Night Live,” especially the fake commercials that they play before the first real commercial break.  One of the most amusing fake ads they’ve done recently was for a product called “Mostly Garbage Dog Food” which, as the name implies, is a cheap dog food that was mostly just garbage.  Sample lines include “your dog isn’t a person, he’s an animal, and in these tough economic times you’ve got to keep your priorities straight” and “you can save your money for human things, like heat for your house or food for your children.”  The “ad” is clearly poking fun at all the expensive “gourmet” dog foods that get made for animals that would just as happily eat garbage.  That’s kind of how I’ve felt about Pixar all these years.  Sure, you could try to make a children’s movie that has well developed characters and a fully realized story, but why bother doing that when children seem to be just as happy watching “The Power Rangers?”

In many ways the film Cars seemed to be an excellent example of this.  Critics, even the ones that seem to go out of their way to dick ride the studio under every other circumstance, were by and large unimpressed with the movie and saw it as a marked drop in quality from previous Pixar movies.  Granted, the movie still earned a somewhat respectable 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, but by the standards of what came before that’s an abject failure.  This is NOT a studio that’s accustomed to such indignities as losing an Oscar to movies about dancing penguins.  In spite of this drop in quality, the studio has probably earned more money from Cars than from any other movie they’ve made (with the possible exception of the Toy Story series), not because of the film’s box office take (which was about average for a Pixar film) but from the merchandising.  If you look in the toy aisle of a department store you will see stacks upon stacks of Cars toys and little evidence that any of the studio’s other films even existed.  Then go to the children’s clothing section, the children’s décor section, or the candy aisle and you’ll see the same.  For whatever reason, kids love this goddamn movie even if their parents know better.

I turned on Cars with exceptionally low expectations; I thought it was going to be the stupidest and most kid-pandering movie imaginable, the kind of thing that Dreamworks would shit out on a particularly greedy day.  While the movie I watched was indeed not very good, it wasn’t bad in the ways in which I expected, specifically I don’t think it was really pandering to the tastes of children at all, at least not any more than the rest of the Pixar movies have.  The real difference is that the adult audiences it has in mind aren’t the film buffs, comic book fans, or hipsters that the studio had previously courted; this is a film that is aimed straight at “Middle America.”  I suppose this was pretty clear on the film’s surface, after all this is a movie that revolves around NASCAR racing, has terrible country songs by the likes of Brad Paisley and Rascal Flats on the soundtrack, and had Larry the Cable Guy in a prominent role.  However, at its heart tastes of Middle America are perhaps less horrible than they are middlebrow and to some extent that’s the level that this film operates on.

The film opens with lead protagonist Lightning McQueen acting as an incredibly cocky hotshot who almost loses a race because he’s too arrogant to take a pit stop.  Hmmm… could this possibly be a character that will be humbled over the course of an adventure that makes him reconsider his priorities?  Indeed, he does go through just such a humbling after a cartoony sequence of events brings him to a forgotten town called Radiator Springs where he accidentally causes a bunch of road damage.  In response to this, the town stages a questionable trial in which McQueen is denied a competent lawyer and contact with the outside world which results in him being forced to fix the road, just because that’s what the town votes for.  Why this Kangaroo Court doesn’t just order this rich racing champion to write a check for the damage I don’t know, I suppose that would end the movie a little too quickly.

McQueen rightly hates the town, firstly because they’re corrupt slave drivers and secondly because this is generally a shitty town unworthy of affection.   Anyone in their right mind would finish whatever work they were being forced to do, leave, and then either forget about this hellhole or perhaps come back to sue them for wrongful imprisonment.  However, this script is less interested in reality and justice than it is in lauding “small town values.”  As such McQueen goes through a rather implausible affection for the town after he bonds with a retarded tow truck over random acts of cruelty against cow/tractors and later when he realizes that the town is in close proximity to a waterfall and a couple other neat geological formations.  Of course this isn’t the first film that has lionized Middle America using very little in the way of real evidence.  I fact it follows a pretty well established formula in order to achieve this end.  Some have compared it to the 1991 Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood, though I haven’t seen that film and can’t vogue for the similarities.  However, I have seen The Majestic, Witness, Local Hero, and any number of other movies that follow similar patterns (which can probably be traced back to Capera).

To the film’s credit, it does play out like a somewhat dignified film with a serviceable Hollywood structure.  It does not revel in juvenile humor to the extent that I expected, but when it did show its juvenile side it was incredibly bad.   First of all I probably need to address that the town seems to be populated by racial stereotypes like the Italian tire dealing forklifts who “talka likea thisa,” or the sassy African American car named Flo, or the Latino Low Rider voiced by Cheech Martin.  But the real ground zero of this film’s juvenile sense of humor is of course the character of Mater voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.  Really Pixar?  You actually cast Larry the fucking Cable Guy in your movie?  And you made his character into a spastic retard that makes Flic from A Bug’s Life and Dory from Finding Nemo look positively dignified?  Every time this… thing… is on screen this movie completely lives up to its reputation as the dumbest of kids movies.  That said, I think I only counted something like two fart jokes, so I suppose it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

I guess I should also address strange world that the film exists in, which is populated by cars with mouths and eyes.  It’s… odd.  I guess it’s not that much stranger than talking toys… or maybe it is, I mean, those toys do look like humans and we do know where toys come from (even though that series has plenty of logic gaps in its own world).  It’s not exactly clear how human these cars are: for instance the cars don’t seem to need any kind of food other than gasoline but they also need to sleep at night.  They have many buildings and institutions even though they don’t have opposable thumbs, or any thumbs or hands for that matter.  Also, where do these cars come from?  Are they being built at a factory by other cars, or do the cars fuck?  I’m leaning towards the factory given that we don’t see any child cars in the movie, but if they’re being built why doesn’t every car get to be a Porsche or Ferrari?  Where’s the economic need for less than perfect cars?  I don’t know, it’s kind of surreal and frankly I think they succeeded at making me not think about it a whole lot (at least when McQueen isn’t sticking out his tongue, WTF).  I also kind of dug the sort of Route 66 Americana they were able to build the world out of.

Once McQueen finally settles into place in Radiator Springs the film just sort of turns into a boring riff on the romantic comedy.  That’s why I said this really just kind of settles for the middle brow, it really feels just like a standard sort of formulaic story that isn’t horrible but which isn’t really worthy of any kind of praise either.  It’s also a pretty long movie relative to the rest of Pixar’s catalog.  Granted, the 117 minute runtime wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow if this were a live action movie, but it is actually the longest movie Pixar has ever put out and it’s also the one that most clearly didn’t need that extra run time.  That’s another reason that I’m surprised that this movie is so beloved by young children, who I’d think would be nodding off during some of the long stretches of dialogue between races and dumb comedy, because I highly doubt they care much about McQueen’s budding romance with a Porsche named Sally.

I suppose it’s also worth noting that this is another clear leap forward for the studio from a technical perspective.  While almost all of the previous Pixar movies that I watched did reveal their age to some extent, this one really didn’t except in one or two minor spots.  This might partly be because there weren’t any humans to speak of in the film, or any animals for that matter.  Technology has always been a lot easier to render in computer graphics than organic material, which is why I’ve never been quite as impressed by the effects in the Transformers series as I have in, say, Peter Jackson’s King Kong.  Even with that in mind I was still quite impressed by what the studio was able to do in building the environment that the film is set in, and I also admired the base filmmaking, particularly the editing.

So what can I ultimately make of Cars?  Well, it wasn’t the torture that I expected it to be and that it exceeded microscopic expectations might have helped it a lot.  The film is a mediocrity, with a couple of cringe inducing elements sprinkled in to pull it down beneath the level of average.  The film probably would have probably maintained a better reputation if it had ditched some of the horrendous elements like the Mater character but it still wouldn’t be anywhere close to being a great film.  The base film just isn’t shooting for the moon; it’s shooting for something like the third floor of a not overly tall building, and I wouldn’t even say that it hits that target.  It’s a movie for people who don’t like to be challenged by cinema and who don’t really want to think about what they’re being shown.  I can certainly imagine how, to someone who’d been with Pixar from day one, this movie would feel like some kind of betrayal.  However as someone who has never really placed the studio on that much of a pedestal, this movie doesn’t really make me all that mad, in fact I don’t think I’d even say it was quite as bad as A Bug’s Life.  I don’t see myself fuming over this movie’s “awfulness,” nor will I lift a finger to defend it, more likely I will just forget it and move on to the more promising cinematic territory that the studio seems to have carved out in the years to come.

The Short Program: One Man Band

Every year I dutifully make Oscar predictions and submit them to various pools in order to show my Oscar prediction skills, and every year I end up only getting 50%-66% of them correct.  That’s partly because I make predictions in every single category including the ones that I know very little about like the category for Best Animated Short.  In 2006 I was making my predictions and I came across an article saying that the sure winner in that category would be One Man Band because it was made by Pixar, and everybody likes Pixar after all.  So in turn I made that prediction and sure enough I got burned.  That’s when I learned that Pixar’s shorts actually never win in that category; at least they haven’t since 2001.  The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, but it’s likely similar to the reason they never win the Annie Award either: jealousy within the animation community.  I don’t remember what actually did win that year, but I’m not sure I entirely blame the academy for choosing to zag instead of zig in this case, because I can’t say that this is necessarily one of the studio’s most inspired efforts on the short front.

This is a return to the form of the silent short, after the song-story approach of Boundin’, except that this one has a bigger focus on music than any of the previous shorts.  It appears to be set in Renaissance Italy and depicts two street performers with elaborate arrays of instruments getting into a duel of sorts to impress a little girl enough for her to give them a coin.  The two seem somewhat childish in their competitiveness and predictably it doesn’t end well for either of them.  That’s not exactly the most inspired of ideas and the reversal at the end isn’t as interesting as similar cartoon reversals in previous shorts like Geri’s Game and even For the Birds.

The short is certainly more impressive than the shorts that came before it on a technical level.  I think that this is the first time that one of their shorts has been composed in a 2.35:1 ratio and that gives it a rather big feel, and the Italian streets are extremely well rendered, as are the various characters’ clothing.  The human faces still seem deliberately cartoonish, but not distractingly so, and the performers instrumental rigs are also pretty lovingly rendered.  Michael Giacchino also seems to have had a ton of fun coming up with the music for the short, which seem appropriately large and orchestral; although it’s perhaps a bit unbelievable coming from the makeshift rigs that the characters are wearing. All in all this isn’t a bad short, and I probably would have been more impressed with the idea if it had been used a couple of movies earlier, but Pixar had already made more impressive shorts than this at this point in their lifespan and this just kind of seems to play it safe.

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