Sunday, August 13, 2006

Film Review - Cars

The courtship between the Walt Disney Corporation and Pixar Animation Studios has been at best a tumultuous one to say the least about it. Former-Disney Chairman/CEO Michael Eisner deserves most of the blame however. He and Steve Jobs, Chairman/CEO of Pixar Animation Studios, were at each other’s throats throughout their nearly decade long partnership together. Even after the astonishing break-out success of honorary Oscar recipient Toy Story in 1995, Eisner had yet to be convinced of Pixar’s potential. Rather then buy Pixar straight-out, which would have been the smart and economically efficient thing to do, Disney instead negotiated to extend their three-picture distribution deal to five movies. Things became even direr after Disney theatrically released Toy Story 2 in 1999 which had been originally produced with the intention of it premiering direct-to-video. Pixar believed it should count as part of their five-picture deal with Disney but Eisner argued that it was negotiated outside of their contract and did not count. Disney’s efforts to (no pun intended) drown Finding Nemo in the midst of the summer season, which failed miserably as it went on to become the highest grossing animated film of all time, surpassing The Lion King, further emboldened Jobs to seek a corporate divorce, if only to rid himself of Michael Eisner. Disaster was averted however when Michael Eisner chose, forcefully or not, to step down from his position aboard the Walt Disney Company allowing his replacement, Robert Iger, to woe Pixar back to Disney. With Eisner now out of the picture, Jobs, with no contention against the Disney Corporation anymore, agreed to sell the animation giant to the company for seven-billion dollars, far more then it would have been had Eisner chosen to buy them out ten years ago.

The story for Cars can easily be identified as the source of the movie’s problems but precisely pinpointing the exact cause is a bit more difficult. While there is nothing particularly wrong with it per say – it is sweet and well meaning – it comes off as being far too generic. This is the exact same predicament the Brad Bird directed Pixar project, The Incredibles, was faced with two years ago. However, The Incredibles was in the end still able to be overtly entertaining in spite of this tremendous handicap. Cars, on the other hand, is not nearly as successful as its predecessor was. Time is not a factor, at least not on its face. Cars’ one-hundred and fourteen minute time-length is on par with the running time for The Incredibles and yet Cars is the one that feels more drawn out. Lightning’s trip to California, for example. While it does successfully ‘show off’ Pixar’s artistic prowess (emphasis added), it does nothing to better accommodate the flow of the story. Instead it smacks of pride and daresay smugness on the part of Pixar Animation and should have been shortened down. Even Lightning’s community service sentence in Radiator Springs feels force fed. That said however Rascal Flatts’ version of ‘Life is a Highway’ is put to expedient use in this scene. And then unlike past Pixar films there is no distinctive villain to help chart the path of the film’s protagonist. But then again this fails to explain Finding Nemo’s success in terms of plot and character development. Regardless of what the true source of the problems is, Cars in spite of foreseeable plot devices still remains a cut above the rest of the mainstream box office.

The decision to cast comedic-actor Owen Wilson as the lead in Disney/Pixar’s Cars did not bring quite the level of anticipation or enthusiasm as Craig T. Nelson for The Incredibles or Albert Brooks in Finding Nemo had in their respected roles. In spite of his fairly consistent appearance in such artistic independent films as The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums for director Wes Anderson, Wilson is judged mostly on his more frequent appearance in low-level comedies like Shanghai Knights, Zoolander, Starsky and Hutch, and Wedding Crashers which make the choice to cast him as the lead in a Pixar film a bit odd. Slowly but surely Wilson proves he is up to the challenge. Furthermore, there is more to the character makeup of Lightening McQueen then what lies on the surface. French political philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous political analysis Democracy in America warned of the greatest threat facing the newborn nation America and its principles of liberty, freedom and democracy – individualism. Not the rugged individualism which vastly shaped this nation’s western frontier throughout the 1800s but rather the individualism which leads people only to think of themselves and withdraw further from the community at large. It is the kind of ‘no-fault freedom’ Senator Rick Santorum describes in his book It Takes a Family as the ability to “check out from the pursuit of the common good and to do what feels right for me, without regard to those around me”. It is a bit of stretch, true, to go from discussing high-level political-science canon to a children’s film about a world entirely inhabited by living, breathing cars. Regardless, the basic principle remains the same. Younger children will likely not pick up on the social-political implications of the message this film expresses just yet, maybe a few years down the road – if they are being educated properly, but adults will. Their embrace of the film and its message will make all the difference.

Cars will likely be one of the last, if not THE last, films for fellow car enthusiast and acting legend Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). He definitely goes out in style as the abrupt doctor of a simple town who hides a secret past. Say what you want about Larry the Cable Guy, even ardent fans would agree that his feature film debut, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, was a bit of an embarrassment, but there’s no denying the fact that he steals the show with his hick antics as Mater which is just like “tuh-mater, but without the ‘tuh’”.

Few will likely notice without examining the cast list first that Michael Keaton (Batman, Mr. Mom, White Noise, Herbie: Fully Loaded, etc.) is the voice of the quasi-villain, or as close to a villain as the film gets, Chick Hicks. Kudos both to the casting director and especially to Keaton himself who disguises his voice brilliantly in order to create a rather suspicious character.

And hearing Formula One-winner Michael Schumacher as well as NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Mario Andretti, Darrell Waltrip, and Richard Petty, along with his wife, Lynda, provide the voices of their motor-vehicle counterparts in the film is definitely a surprising added bonus. Even car enthusiast/late-night talk-show host Jay Leno gets in on the act making a very brief cameo as Jay Limo early in the movie.

Overall, Cars, the seventh computer-animated project from the creative and talented folks at Pixar Animation Studios, not to mention their very last film before the Disney buyout, is sadly their worst to date. This is more of an insult to the movie industry overall however. Even on their worst day Pixar still manages to produce a product that is superior then the majority of what is out in the market right now – animated or otherwise. Optimistically, it’s about average. While some pessimists will be quick to label Cars as a step backward for the company and ultimately a failure, alternatively it can be said that director John Lassester, intentionally or not, successfully reintroduces the basic storytelling principles and heart which he himself installed in the company with Toy Story and A Bug’s Life in 1995 and 1998 respectively as it makes the transition from an independent entity into another cog in the Disney machine. It is difficult to pin down precisely what is wrong with this film. For one it felt as the though the level of anticipation for this film was no where near as high as it should have been for a Pixar release in summer when everyone is out of school. Marketing may be to blame for dropping the ball on this one, at least in part. Cars was sold too much to the male-driven (no pun intended) NASCAR crowd that it practically alienated the female demographic. That said however it is not entirely marketing’s fault. While it is not beyond reason to believe that children or even some adults for that matter may wonder what toys do when humans are not around or whether fish and bugs talk, it is quite a stretch to believe that someone out there truly wants to know what the world would be like if it was entirely inhabited by cars. And unlike fish, toys, monsters, and, yes, even bugs, cars are just not cuddly. It is therefore practically impossible to sell a love story to young girls when it is between two cold pieces of metal, essentially. In addition there is nothing in Cars – visually or otherwise – that really sticks out in your mind when you leave the theatre. Sure, the scene with Mater and Lighting sneaking into the field to go ‘tractor tipping’ is cute and all but it’s nothing compared to the scene in Finding Nemo with Dory speaking whale or Mike and Sulley ‘practicing’ for the company musical called ‘Put That Thing Back Where It Came From or So Help Me’ from Monsters, Inc. Not to be so negative about Cars, there are some bright spots. Randy Newman returns to Pixar in top form with an incredible accompanying musical score. And the soundtrack to the film has to be one of the best in the studios’ history. It features excellent new additions like Sheryl Crow’s ‘Real Gone’ and ‘Find Yourself’ from country artist Brad Paisley as well as some classic tunes like ‘Route 66’ performed by Chuck Berry and Rascal Flatts’ version of ‘Life is a Highway’. Cars is no where near the disaster some had predicted it would be but neither is it the best we could have hoped for.

My Rating: **** out of 5 (Grade: B+)