Cars (John Lasseter, 2006)

Cars is pretty much okay, about par for Lasseter (I'd be hard put to name a favorite--not because I love his works (I don't) but because I don't have many fond memories to choose from). Pixar, with Lasseter behind it, seems to revel in trying to animate unpromising material, from toys (which are fairly anthropomorphic, and therefore easy) to bugs, fish, automobiles, no less.

Do they succeed? The cars at certain angles have a startling photorealism--but who wants photorealism when you can just watch NASCAR on TV? The stylized bits are more interesting, somewhat, but there's only so much human expression you can squeeze out of a front bumper and a pair of headlights--the movie really stands or falls on its voice performances, and other than Larry the Cable Guy (who's mildly amusing as a tow truck) and one other exception, the cast is pretty much undistinguished, aurally speaking.

That said, Lasseter pours plenty of nostalgia for the sixties into the movie, from the building designs (the drive-in 'soda fountain,' the motel--but what, no drive-in theaters?) to the desert landscape (featuring car grill cliff faces and exhaust pipe mountain ranges and whatnot), and a lot of thought into the incidental details, from the VW Beetle houseflies to perhaps his funniest creation, tractors playing free-range cattle (they give off a little fart of a backfire when frightened).

Maybe the best single thing worth watching for in the picture is Paul Newman's gently grizzled performance as "Doc"--an old race car turned town surgeon / mechanic. Newman has a wide chrome grill mouth that somehow manages to look wrinkled and leathery, and he's been given those unsettling baby-blue eyes (the hero (Owen Wilson, who I usually like in real life--he needs his handsomely goofy face to make a full impression) also has blue eyes, but not this bright, or this magnetic). Newman effortlessly incarnates the kind of old-time grace Lasseter seems to put so much premium on--even validates it to a considerable extent. If the picture doesn't quite make it for me, it's probably because Lasseter didn't make him the lead of the movie (big mistake, in my opinion).

I'll say this much for Lasseter; I think he's learned  from his idol and (let's be honest about it) master Hayao Miyazaki, everything from putting a pause to all that busy plotting to show us What It's All About, to giving us a fairly exciting ending where we learn that Winning Isn't Everything (isn't Newman's character some kind of indirect tribute to Miyazaki's sensibility?). Lasseter doesn't have his master's subtlety (for one, the lust to win is rarely an issue; in the case of Princess Mononoke, it's actually part of the problem), and doesn't feel the need to tackle genuine issues (the vulnerability of our environment, the folly of war, the quiet tragedies  and triumphs of everyday living), but he's taken some baby steps. Not too bad, better than Over the Hedge (which I also fairly liked). You can do worse than watch this pic, but I wouldn't call it a must-see.

Additonal thoughts from Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities (6/12/06):

The culture of gas station cafes and roadside eateries along Route 66 is a fascinating one, and I regret not seeing in Cars--mainly because it is about cars--the kind of food you found in these places. Hamburgers and milkshakes, or so I read (I'd like to actually visit some of those places, someday), oddities like Rattlesnake Stew and The Worst Apple Pie in the World. Lasseter does okay--I don't think it's a bad film--but in my ideal Route 66 movie there'd be an endless line of greasy spoons.


Thinking about it, is Lasseter in Cars trying to teach a different kind of lesson? Not so much that Winning Isn't Everything, but that there exists a Cool Beyond Cool--that instead of attaining what everyone considers the ultimate goal or achievement, you forge a new kind of achievement and have everyone recognize that instead.

Could Lasseter, from his recent experience with Disney, have realized that association with the Mouse (or, as I like to put it, The Rat Factory) isn't the be-all and end-all of animators--that he himself is considered so golden (boxofficewise and criticwise) he's ipso facto the very zenith of modern-day animation quality (at least to those who don't seem to know any better)? And then--consciously or unconsciously--could he have grafted this attitude to his racing-car hero?

Is this what Cars is really all about? And would Lasseter's master approve of such a message?

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