The fast and the furious

BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - June 9, 2006 - 12:00am
The screening of Pixar’s Cars that I attended was preceded by trailers for RV, that awful Robin Williams vehicle, and Open Season, Sony’s first foray into CGI-animated films. Accordingly, I grated my teeth on both counts.

The wildly lucrative business of family films could not be more dichotomized with the sorry state of what the industry actually produces: Dreamworks’ Madagascar and Disney’s Chicken Little, huge hits last year, pandered to the lowest form of callow comic tackiness both visually and contextually; this past spring, Ice Age: The Meltdown proved that an empty mammoth skull equates to one of the year’s top-grossing films (alternatively Dreamworks’ zippy, droll Over the Hedge is a step in the right direction).

To say we’ve come to expect great things from Pixar is much more of an understatement than you’d first anticipate. Over the course of six (now seven) feature films (and numerous other shorts) it has single-handedly worked to validate computer-generated animation as an art form unto itself; family films – or, more generally, populist entertainment – that could very well serve as a medium beyond mere childish diversion or its aesthetic sensibilities.

But much more than fighting against the stereotyped conventions of animation, Pixar has been walking the tightrope to maintain its unprecedented record of critical and commercial success; despite Cars’ negative buzz (the change in release date, the so-so teaser, the anthropomorphic overload of – aghast! – talking cars) that is almost customary before any Pixar release, shockingly, the studio has yet to produce anything near a celluloid train wreck. And just as requisite when reviewing a new Pixar release, a quick rank: The Incredibles and Finding Nemo still remain the animation institution’s unequivocal masterworks; and Toy Story 2 will always be reserved a place in everyone’s hearts. Cars fits playfully between A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc., fantastic films in their own right that more than satisfy our initial cravings as the studio revs up for its next astonishing work of art.

It is interesting to note, then, when discussing Pixar’s place in the vast, crude underworld of family-driven movie consumerism, that Cars is as populist as Pixar has ever gotten: it’s as decidedly American as a Fourth of July picnic table, crafted as a kind of idealized peace treaty in a red state-blue state dispute that pits the rural southwest against a mechanized California. Still, the nature of how director John Lassetter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2) exploits NASCAR lore and L.A. car culture reaches an affirming familiarity that defies esotericism. Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a rookie on the racing circuit with an ego too big for his own good. He gets lost on his way to the Piston Cup finals, and ends up in Radiator Springs, once a thriving town on fabled Route 66, forgotten when the interstate was built. Stuck in what he describes as "hillbilly hell," McQueen is forced to interact with Radiator Springs’ residents, among them rusty tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy); Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a Porsche who gave up the power suits and shiny hub caps of L.A. law for arid bucolic life; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), an aging race car with a legendary past. It’s a standard-issue, stop-and-smell-the-roses tale advocating the simplest – though potentially the least easily digestible – of cinematic ideals, made genuine and wrenchingly endearing by a cast of talking cars (!). I thought I drew the line at one-eyed tennis balls and surfer-dude sea turtles; what I learned after Cars is that whatever Pixar pines, get ready to surrender to; it’s already one of the best films of the summer, a warm, wide-eyed throwback that plays out like an old soul with an arresting innocence.

The animation is as stunning as ever; what begins as brazen visual spunkiness evolves throughout the film into spectacular grandeur of near-photorealism. The racetracks and rolling canyons move with their own kinetic, personified vitality, sun-baked and soaking in the old-fashioned charm of the storytelling. Cars is unabashed in its nostalgic maple-syrup sentimentalism, just as Walt Disney had Jiminy Cricket croon When You Wish Upon a Star or, more recently, as Lassetter himself had us sobbing for Jessie the cowgirl in Toy Story 2 as Sarah McLachlan warbled in the background. Being left on the side of a road in a cardboard box is something (I hope) none of us had ever experienced, but Lassetter was able to humanize Jessie and find that beating heart within the plastic.

He and his team do the same in Cars. For almost two hours I cared for these talking moulds of metal with shifty windshield-eyes (do I still hate myself for finding Larry the Cable Guy so painfully likable?), but it didn’t feel sticky or schmaltzy or wholeheartedly ridiculous. It was strangely liberating, in fact; it was freeing and innerving to think that maybe, just maybe, they’re just here to tell a great story.

Grade: A-
* * *

For comments, e-mail me at lanz_ys@yahoo.com.

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