After reading some pretty poor reviews, including several from disappointed Pixar fans, I wasn’t expecting much from Cars. I was led to believe I would be seeing something cliché, irritating and preachy in its condemnation of the modern world. Happily, I was pleasantly surprised, and Lasseter has served up another winner.
Let’s face it, Pixar do not write original plots. That’s not their thing. Pixar’s style of writing is to take a very traditional, predictable story format full of wholesome themes of loyalty and redemption and then to put a twist on it, usually by placing it in an unusual setting – amongst bugs, monsters, toys…and now cars. They do something that’s tried-and-tested and even purposefully old-fashioned, and they do it very, very well, all the real beauty of the stories coming from the characters. It just works.
Pixar have created a world in which all living things – people, animals, insects – are cars. Simple as that. As with books for little kids, we don’t need to know the logistics involved; that’s just how it is, and it provides some funny visual gags. Equally, everything that is a vehicle in this world...is alive.
Here, the star of the racing world is Lightning McQueen, a cocky, selfish rookie who doesn’t have a real friend in the world. His selfish actions indirectly lead to him ending up wrecking the road of a small town, and in the time it takes him to repair the damage, he learns important lessons about friendship, trust and what is really important in life. Told you it was wholesome.
Visually, we have here the pinnacle of CG animation. Beside some of the cheap, horrible animation in the trailers before the feature, Pixar’s supremacy in the field is evident. Don’t just look at the big bold surfaces of the cars’ eyes. Look at the skies, the clouds of dust and most of all, the astonishingly realistic reflections on the shiny surfaces of the cars. Breathtaking. At least, for me, a bit of a geek when it comes to CG. And the way the cars move works so well, considering how difficult it must be to make a machine like a car look and move in a way expressive enough to make people care.
Taking a tried-and-tested route also means bringing out the stock characters, and while I think the stereotypes here are harmless fun, I know plenty of people will be rolling their eyes at ‘The sassy black one’, ‘the slightly slimy Mexican one’ (played by poor old long-suffering Cheech Marin) and other broad stereotypes. At least the hillbilly was fleshed out a little and made likeable. I don’t know who ‘Larry the Cable Guy’ is, but I certainly don’t share the hatred for him most American reviewers seem possessed by, and found Mater didn’t grate like I had expected him to.
There’s much to be said for writing to a formula when it’s done well, and the emotions behind it are genuine. Cars won’t surprise you, nor change your outlook on life, even as the same happens to the protagonists. But it will lift your spirits, entertain you and make you laugh. That’s all I had hoped for.
(originally written 6.8.06. Cars 2 here)