Monday, August 14, 2006

Life In The Not-Sure-Which Lane

Pixar-Disney's Cars is out now, and it's a joy. An absolute delight. Only, it's kind of a disappointment as well. Here are some of the reasons why.

When we think of Pixar, we think of Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles. Which is like thinking of Francis Ford Coppola and immediately going to Godfather, Godfather 2 and Apocalypse Now. Yes, he made them, and they're his best movies...but they're also three of the best films ever made by ANYONE. To expect his career to continually provide that standard is ridiculous.

Pixar have made, bar none, some of the best animated films ever. With those named examples, in fact, you can even afford to lose the 'animated' caveat. But seriously - how many genuine masterpieces does anyone have in them? Get past the top five Da Vincis or Van Goghs and you're into the 'brilliant but less iconic' stuff. It has to be that way.

Pixar's second tier is led by Finding Nemo - brilliant, beautiful, witty, but wearing thin on the buddy concept - followed by Monsters Inc and A Bug's Life.

Cars can certainly sit comfortably alongside those last two. All top-class affairs with spot-on voice talent, nifty direction, great gags, strong characters...they just ain't Toy Story. But in a world of Over The Hedges and Madagascars, they don't have to be. Even lesser Pixar kicks the pretenders to the curb. Only Dreamworks' Shrek movies come close.

It should, I suppose, be pleasing to Pixar that their greatest competition is themselves. But in the meantime critics are dwelling on a perceived 'mediocrity' that just ain't there.

A few upsides, then, before I get hypocritical and tap Cars's flaws. The voice cast is spot on, the characterisation strong, the visuals astounding. The world is smartly thought out, with its own anthropomorphic logics, just as Bug's Life or Nemo had theirs.

Unlike previous films, though, Cars has NO humans. These aren't cars living in our world - like the toys that only come alive when you don't look, or the fish threatened by our nets - they live on a totally auto'd version of Earth. No animals, no people.

This is a strange and illogical existence, riddled with paradox. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the film's constant 'burning' of fossil fuels, you have to reason that they're not using petroleum, because where could it have come from without organic life? And who drilled for it? Hell, who built the cars in the first place?

I know, I think too much. But, in a more mature movie, questions like these ARE begged. (Still, it does lead to a GREAT end credits sequence where the cars go to the drive-in and watch 'Toy Car Story' and 'Monster Trucks Inc.')

More mature? Oh yes. The humour is often lower-key than usual, and this may be what's off-balanced audiences expecting a kid-friendly flick with a few cunning gags for the adults.

This is an adult animated movie, with a few slapstick gags for the kids.

I'm serious. What sproglet is going to follow the satire of big-money motor-sport, the significance of symbolic nightmares, the implications of a bottom-of-the-back tattoo?

After the maturity of The Incredibles - which itself went for wit over wacky and didn't panic if there wasn't a gag every two seconds - this is another step forward for Pixar. A smaller step, to be sure, but a suggestion that animated objects aren't just for the kids.

What's next? Grown-up talking animals? I can dream... (Come on, Bugs Bunny's always been better the older you get.)

Still, with a mature film comes mature themes. The message of Cars is confused. It wants to say that you don't have to rush, and that winning isn't everything. You can afford to slow down. But then, it's a film about a race car, and there's a climactic race to enter for the finale. Hmm. This final sequence - which, by the way, really cooks - contradicts the previous message entirely. The audience whoops as the film gets out of the slow lane and puts its foot back on the gas.

Mixed messages aside, it's also scuppered slightly by the hero. He's arrogant, inconsiderate and, because of that, lonely. And while he DOES learn his lesson, for a long time he's kinda short on redeeming features. Having accidentally trashed half the town, Lightning McQueen's response is "Oops. So, when can I get outta here?" Where's the apology?

It's a bold move to put an unlikable character front and centre, and Owen Wilson's charms do soften the blow. But again I say - lovely, likeable heroes are the safe choice of more childish films. A more adult outlook makes for bolder choices. Anyone accusing Pixar of playing it safe this time around should bear this in mind.

More good stuff, then...

See it for the amazing action. For the Cars universe version of insects - oh, and cows. You'll LOVE the cows. That gag is SO good it's worth doing five times, and it's funny EVERY SINGLE TIME. See it for the raging climax which, as a three-car race, totally avoids all those binary result problems I like to bang on about.

Cry, whoop, cheer. Laugh (slowly, but building exponentially). And fall totally in love with the latest in a long line of lovable comedy sidekicks - Mater the tow-truck. He'll be your new best friend:

"You know, I once knew this girl Doreen. Good-looking girl. Looked just like a Jaguar, only she was a truck. You know, I used to crash into her just so I could speak to her. "


At Mon Aug 14, 10:42:00 pm, Anonymous Eric said...

Ah the memorable Toy Story. Such a great story...


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