11 June 2006 - Sunday


Pixar's latest release has been getting mixed reviews. Most critics like it, but a few have been very harsh in their appraisal. I tried to keep an open mind when I watched it in the local theater yesterday.

I am not telling people not to see the movie. On the contrary, many people love it, and I agree that the film is fairly good in the middle and has lots of beautiful scenery. The problem is that the movie starts shallow and ends maudlin, and the characters mostly seem pretty flat.

In short, the problem is that Cars is an animated sports movie. It follows the traditional pattern of all sports movies, indulging in clichés throughout. Here is the plot: Lightning McQueen is a rookie racecar with a lot of star power and a ridiculous ego. En route to a career-defining race in California, he gets lost in the desert, winding up in a nearly deserted old town that lies on the legendary Route 66. There, he learns that respect and friendship are more important than glory, and that ignorant hicks can be wonderful human beings -- er, sentient automobiles. After that ... well, I don't want to give away the ending, but it has something to do with lots of cheering fans.

Let me explain in more detail the problems in this plot.

First, because the film opens in the middle of a race, the narrative gets off to a bad start. Our introduction to three of the main characters, including the protagonist, comes from the inane chatter of the television commentators at the racetrack. It takes a long time for the movie to dig any deeper than that into the Lightning's mentality; for much of the film, he is a depressingly two-dimensional automobile.

Second, what makes the poor start worse is the fact that Lightning is not a very sympathetic character. In fact, he is a manifest jerk. We know he's a jerk from the beginning, but he does not. So we really don't care for him much until he finally figures out that this is a bad thing -- about an hour later. Meanwhile, the only reason the filmmakers give us to care about him is the same celebrity aura that makes him so annoying in the first place.

Third, the protagonist is not the only character who could use more depth. Some of the other cars are stock characters from children's movies. We have the world-weary mentor -- two of them, really -- as well as the spunky young female with a crush on the bad boy. Still other characters are predictable because of their packaging: the VW van is a hippie, the Jeep is a drill sergeant, and the lowrider is Latino. That's about all we know about them. These cars are cute, but Pixar's greatest successes have been due to less predictable characters: paranoid monsters, sharks in rehab, unionized superheroes, cowardly tyrannosaurs, thrill-seeking turtles.

Fourth, a related problem: because every living thing in the movie is a car or some other form of transportation, the Cars ecosystem lacks the diversity it needs to sustain interest. There are only so many ways to spin puns from automotive work. Every character consumes the same things; each has roughly the same mission in life; each shares the same basic design. The film thus lacks the rich variety of the best Pixar productions.

Finally, Lightning's eventual moral transformation is too abrupt, and the end of the film is overdone. These scenes have occasional traces of originality, but not enough.

The film is very pretty, and it has a lot of clever bits. But with this film, I think, Pixar made the same mistake that George Lucas made when he started playing around with CGI: they let spectacle overwhelm verisimilitude. Cars is full of gorgeous scenery and exciting effects, but a lot of it is a distraction from the storytelling.

I do think the desert portion of the film was based on some great ideas, though. I fervently wish the execution were better; a sort of Finding-Nemo-meets-The-Last-Picture-Show story could have been brilliant.

| Posted by Wilson at 19:46 Central | TrackBack
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