'Cars' and Pixar Rule
By John Hartl, Film critic, MSNBC
Pixar rules! American animation companies come and go, but the one that debuted with "Toy Story" more than a decade ago continues to make all others look like pretenders.
The company's latest, "Cars," which could easily turn out to be the summer's best movie (and it's only June), instantly wipes out memories of the past year's other computer-generated cartoons. Without relying on endless references to other movies, without paying homage to Disney (Pixar's partner/owner), without resorting to toilet humor or relying unnecessarily on the marquee value of its voice talent, Pixar maintains its quality in movie after movie.
"The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters Inc.," "A Bug's Life" — what else needs to be said? Directed by John Lasseter, who founded Pixar and directed both "Toy Story" and its sequel, "Cars" has all the heart and genius that's been missing from the genre lately.
The subject may seem a little odd, even off-putting for anyone who isn't charmed by such character-defining announcements as "I am speed!" And it's true that the movie begins on a note of anthropomorphized confusion. With all those souped-up cars zooming around a gigantic race track — their windshields transformed into human-like eyes and their grills turned into grins — it's a little difficult to find a focus.
Eventually a character announces himself: Lightning McQueen, an insufferable hotshot who clearly needs to be taken down a notch or three. He'll soon be given the opportunity. Separated from his carrier on a trip to the big-time Piston Cup Championship in California, Lightning ends up taking Route 66 and crashing into a dying town called Radiator Springs.
Played in his patented surfer-dude style by Owen Wilson, Lightning just wants to get back on the interstate highway, a structure that is largely to blame for the town's ghostly nature. At first he finds nothing charming about the place, or the judge (Paul Newman) and lawyer (Bonnie Hunt) who are determined to keep him there until he performs a little community service in exchange for the mess he created.
"I'm in hillbilly hell," he declares, no doubt thinking of a rusty tow truck named Mater (played with infectious hillbilly humor by Larry the Cable Guy).
Gradually he wakes up and smells the nearby desert, which appears to be the same Monument Valley where John Ford shot so many Westerns. How could anyone not be enchanted by the place? Especially when Lightning finds himself emotionally tied to so many of the residents, including the judge, a mentor who says things like "You can win this race with your eyes shut." (Shades of "Trust the force, Luke.")
A cartoon about competitive racing may seem suicidal. After all, what's less spontaneous, less likely to produce an unexpected result, than animation? Careful planning is the nature of the beast.
But it's the illusion of spontaneity that has become Pixar's specialty (remember their painstakingly animated "blooper reels"?). It's there in the steady buildup of relationships between Lightning and the townspeople, it's there in the casual resurrection of the Radiator Springs Drive-in Movie, and it's there in the many ways the movie finds to indulge its contagious nostalgia for a vanished existence.