Saturday, July 29, 2006

Review - Cars

When you’re as good as Pixar have been for so long, anything less than the best tends to comes as something of a disappointment. With the exception of the anodyne A Bug’s Life, the studio has delivered hit after hit since 1995’s Toy Story, making technological leaps and bounds with every film as well as consistently creating heartfelt stories which sparkle with wit. How long can a company keep up a success rate like that, before one of their films fall short?
Cars is the latest Pixar film with the unenviable task of maintaining their winning streak, and on first glance it’s hard not to greet the film with a sense of deflation. This is not a film to rank alongside the high-water mark set by the Toy Story Pictures and The Incredibles. The story is banal, the laughs are fewer and more scattered than you might expect, and the film struggles to fully hold the interest over the course of two hours. But if that makes it sound like a stinker, then there’s one thing which Cars still has in its favour - Pixar’s films are so far above and beyond the CGI efforts of any other studio, even one of their weakest efforts still feels like a treat.
Cars’ central storyline - an uninspired blend of Doc Hollywood and Days of Thunder - is a disappointly insipid effort, especially coming directly after Brad Bird’s dazzling The Incredibles. Owen Wilson lends his voice to Lightning McQueen, a cocky young racer who is one victory away from winning the coveted Piston Cup in his rookie year on the circuit. His head is filled with images of the huge sponsorship deals, adoring fans, glamorous parties and mountains of cash which will surely follow his success. Lightning’s obnoxious behaviour has driven away his crew and he doesn’t have any real friends but, hey, who needs them when you’re as big a star as he’s about to become?

The race doesn’t go entirely to plan, however, and Lightning is involved in an unprecedented three-way tie with legendary car The King and perennial second-place car Chick Hicks. A rematch between the three contenders is scheduled in California one week later, but disaster strikes for Lightning en route; he gets lost and finds himself alone on Route 66, eventually getting himself into a spot of bother in the rustic, backwater town of Radiator Springs. He’s trapped there until he fixes up the damage he caused upon his arrival, and the prospect of winning the Piston Cup grows fainter by the day.

As I watched this all unfold my heart gradually started to sink. The opening section of Cars doesn’t immediately engage you in the way their films so often do, and as Lightning’s dreams of glory were visualised on screen in such a brash and loud fashion, I struggled to see how I could really care about these characters. This is the first Pixar film to take place in a world entirely free from humans and the initial effect is jarring. At the racetrack scene which opens the film, the cars are not simply doing the racing; they’re in the stands, in the pits, commentating on the action - even the tiniest bluebottles have four wheels.

John Lasseter, directing his first film here since Toy Story 2 (along with the late Joe Ranft), is clearly passionate about cars of every shape and size, but it takes a while for the audience to feel the same way. Pixar’s army of animators have a done a terrific job in anthropomorphising these vehicles - their grills and bumpers form their mouths, and the windscreen (not the headlights, a smart move) are their eyes - but even so, it takes a while for us to really believe that there’s a heart and soul underneath all that metal and glass.

Things start to look up when Lightning finds himself in Radiator Springs, and the supporting cast begins to make its mark on the picture. The real star of Cars is Mater, a buck-toothed, rusty old tow-truck voiced brilliantly by US comedian Larry The Cable Guy. Mater is an innocent character, trusting to a fault, who instantly adopts Lightning as his new best friend, and it’s at this point that the film finally starts to generate something resembling genuine emotion. The theme of friendship has been the main staple of Pixar’s pictures, and while the moral lessons inherent in Cars aren’t delivered with a great deal of subtlety, there’s a heartfelt sweetness about this central pairing which is hard to resist.

Other characters are good value too. Bonnie Hunt’s Sally is a sexy Porsche who wins Lightning’s heart, Paul Newman plays cranky old Doc Hudson with a suitable amount of grizzled gravitas, and a lot of laughs are provided by the Ferrari-obsessed Italian pair Guido and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni). George Carlin stars as one of Cars’ most inspired creations - a multi-coloured VW van from the 60’s who speaks of conspiracies in his stoner drawl and makes his own ‘herbal’ fuel (“the 60’s weren’t good to you, were they?” suggests army jeep Sarge). The detail and affection with which these characters have been brought to life is Cars’ saving grace. As ever, each actor is a perfect fit for their role; and while the supporting characters may not prove as memorable as those from Toy Story or Finding Nemo, they’re certainly endearing creations in their own right.

As you might expect, Lightning’s stint in this dead-end town proves to be a blessing in disguise, as he begins to learn the error of his arrogant ways and starts to truly appreciate the important things in life, and the simplicity of the film’s narrative arc is its biggest flaw. Lightning’s dawning self-realisation feels rote, and the film’s lazy pacing allows the story to get sidetracked too many times on the way to its predictable destination. At least Cars gives you plenty to look at along the way though, with this film marking yet another brilliant achievement in animation. The cars themselves all look superb, from the old rust-buckets to the gleaming Porsches and Ferraris, and the astonishing detail in the near photo-realistic surroundings is simply beautiful.

Therein may lie the problem, though. Lasseter has created this film not only to celebrate the cars he loves, but also as a nostalgic homage to the attitudes and morals of a particular time and place which he feels has been lost in today’s modern world. But his desire to showcase these passions in all their splendour has robbed the film of much of its narrative drive; and there seems to be a lack of purpose to many of the scenes which help push the film’s running time towards the 120-minute mark.

There is just about enough Pixar magic left in the tank to carry this film successfully over the finishing line. Cars is an extremely patchy piece of work, but Lasseter swiftly moves up the gears in the final half-hour to deliver a big race climax which is as involving as it is thrilling. Most viewers will ultimately leave the cinema satisfied, and Cars certainly is a perfectly decent slice of family entertainment; but Pixar have set themselves the highest possible benchmark, and they should be aware that films as humdrum and straightforward as this are normally the domain of the animation houses lagging behind in their rear-view mirror. At the moment, however, there seems to be little danger of Pixar being overtaken; and it’s reassuring to know that they still guarantee a good time at the movies, even when they’re cruising.