I saw Pixar’s new movie, Cars last night. Short version: Amazingly beautiful and hilariously funny, but more shallow and less original than I normally expect from this source.
Every time that Pixar puts out a new movie, it is more beautiful than the one that ran before it. Comparing Toy Story to Toy Story 2 is an education in itself in the way that computer animation has grown by leaps and bounds in the few years between those productions. Cars is another leap, though the focus this time is not so much on realistic objects (Toy Story), organic movement (A Bug’s Life), almost touchable textures (Monsters, Inc.), or dynamic fluids (Finding Nemo). This time the focus is on depth of detail, and it has it in scads. From the opening scenes at the stadium with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles rendered to be individuals in a teeming world, to the inescapable dust of the desert, to the debris back on the track, every image in this movie is about cramming as much detail as possible into every frame to narrow the gap between animation and real video. Not to say that the visual style does not have it’s fair share of improbably smooth surfaces (cactus plants) and slightly oddly proportioned objects (The cars themselves), those are part of what people expect to see in a Pixar animation. There is a fingerprint of style there that is as consistent throughout the studio’s animations as Disney’s ever was. It gives the products of the studio a cohesive identity. But looking beyond that to the world around the characters, the scope of how much they can really show to you has expanded immensely and is shown off in amazingly detailed and subtle ways, like the ubiquitous road surfaces.
Past the visuals though, the movie is both very satisfying in being a really very funny romp and yet lacks the emotional depth seen in their other films. I think that the opening scene from Finding Nemo might possibly be the most effective way to set a tone for an environment ever filmed. It filled the rest of the movie with a tension about the very real dangers of the story’s environment that made the emotional connection to the characters as they experienced it’s beauty and horror that much more visceral. Cars goes about trying to connect you with the characters by showing you how pretty, and happy, and friendly the world they inhabit is and it’s kind of a let down. Even when the catastrophic happens a recovery is only a new quarter panel and coat of paint away. The main character is only ever slightly humiliated because of his own actions and never has to face up to a world that has an ultimately capricious nature that can take seemingly everything. There is no drama in Cars, it is purely an American comedy.
Despite that lack of depth, the humor is rich and well composed. From excellent sight gags, small and somehow appropriate potty humor, all the way through classically funny characterization and witty, zingy dialog, I found it hard not to laugh most of the way through the movie. I’ll never look at a combine harvester quite the same way. The story is a good version of an over-used classic with enough small twists to keep it interesting and a couple of fun elements that ensure the serial numbers aren’t quite what you’ve seen before, though you would have to be brain dead or driving on bald tires to miss most of the corners.
Overall, Cars is definitely worth seeing and, possibly because of it’s lack of drama, more appropriate for very young audiences than anything that Pixar has ever produced though it’s length will certainly be a problem for the more active of that group. If you have ever been accused of being a car nut or have any love of car culture or Route 66-style Americana, you would be crazy to give this a miss on the big screen.