Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pixar's Cars Movie Review

Pixar’s Cars was the only film in their continually impressive lineup that I hadn’t seen. This was due in part to the fact that it was released during my first year living abroad and I had quite limited access to English language films that were not dubbed into Spanish. Also, it was the first of the Pixar films to receive only lukewarm critical praise. I had little reason to seek it out until this year which saw the release of the sequel.

At first glance it looks like a difficult sell. It’s the story of a rookie on the racing circuit named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) whose goal to be the first rookie to win the Piston Cup (Cars’ version of the Indy 500, I suppose). His main rivals are an aging racer named The King and a brash veteran called Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). After finishing in a photo finish 3-way tie, a 3-car race is scheduled in California. McQueen wants to get there as quickly as possible to schmooze a big sponsor, but fate leads him on a different path – to a small town in the middle of the desert.

Of course, in the world of Cars, all the characters are themselves cars. There are no people to speak of. Even the thousands in the crowd at events are…well, cars. How do you get people to identify with cars as characters? I suppose it’s an easy sell to many children, especially little boys. My nephew absolutely loves cars and trucks (and pretty much anything with wheels), although ironically he’s never seen Cars. But I wonder if in his mind his cars are characters or driven by imaginary people.

Having seen it now, I can understand the weak reactions to Cars. It is the least of Pixar’s films, but perhaps that’s my viewpoint as an adult. Kids seem to like it well enough. But one of Pixar’s greatest strengths in addition to well-written stories and memorable characters is their ability to write for adults at the same time they appeal to children. Cars seems to be lacking greatly in that department, which is mainly the result of having characters I found it difficult to relate to.

Like all the films in the Pixar treasure trove, this one also comes with a big moralizing message for the kids. The difference is that Cars wears it on its sleeve. Adults should see it coming within the first ten minutes. McQueen is arrogant, he thinks he’s better than the sponsor that has taken him this far, he loves posing for pictures and getting attention. If you don’t pick up at this point that this is going to be about a young hotshot who learns something about the world from spending time with the salt of the earth, then you certainly will when he arrives at Radiator Springs, a forgotten town along the old Route 66. There’s even an old racing pro (now town judge) named Doc Hudson and voiced by acting legend an sometime auto racer Paul Newman who can teach McQueen something about the roots of the sport.

The screenplay by Lasseter, Ranft and a long list of other contributors strives desperately to make decent jokes about cars. It’s rife with automobile puns like McQueen’s catchphrase, “Float like a Cadillac, sting like a Beamer.” And the big emotional pivot, a musical cue that tries to recreate the wallop produced by the Sarah McLachlan song in Toy Story 2, is meant to be a moving nostalgia sequence ushered in by a James Taylor song. Who else can evoke American nostalgia better? Despite Taylor’s presence, the montage fails to evoke the same feelings achieved by the Toy Story trilogy, for example. Again, it’s hard to feel that strong a bond to a story about a world of talking cars. Toys taking on lives of their own when their owners aren’t around? That’s great. They missed the mark on this one, however.

Of course the kids won’t mind or even notice that the movie lacks subtlety. But it’s sloppy and a bit rushed. This is a big surprise considering the man at the helm is John Lasseter, the genius behind Toy Story and Pixar’s early short films, assisted by co-director Joe Ranft. One thing I can’t ignore and I was truly shocked to find in a film by a company that has such stature is the offensive stereotyping of the small-town characters. The owners of the tire shop are two Italians, voiced by Guido Quaroni and Tony Shalhoub, doing a textbook ethnic Italian accent. Larry the Cable Guy voices Mater, the tow truck. Larry plays him as a real dumb Southern hick. He’s the working class character. Ramone is the owner of the body art shop and is voiced by Cheech Marin, exaggerating his Mexican accent. Jennifer Lewis does Flo, the sassy black woman…er, car… who owns the gas station-diner. It’s like a little microcosm of American stereotyping. Then there’s the sleek Porsche, the town lawyer, the educated one and McQueen’s love interest Sally. Who did they get for her voice but Bonnie Hunt, a white woman?

I’m not sure if Lasseter and Ranft intend it as a wry commentary or if it’s just complete ignorance. Either way it’s inexcusable given the target audience they’re pitching at. Children won’t understand any kind of subtle comment that might be at play regarding the ways we view immigrants in this country. What they will take away is that the Latino is into tattoos, the Italians are desperate entrepreneurs, the black woman wants to feed everyone and the white woman has all the glory. Apart from their voices, there are no other cues to signify the ethnicity of these characters. Maybe it will slip past most kids. But make no mistake, children learn quite early the differences between accents. They should have been more thoughtful in the voice casting.

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