July 13, 2006

I’ve been a fan of Pixar’s work for over a decade now. ‘Toy Story’ was a truly eye-opening experience for me … and, I imagine, for many other moviegoers as well. Since then, a combination of technical wizardry and great storytelling has kept them at the top of a very short list of folks who (in my opinion) could do no wrong.

I was frustrated tonight, then, by the viewing of ‘Cars’ I attended with my wife and Ben Davenport.

The most frustrating thing is that I know there are lots of people for whom Pixar has lived up to their standards. ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘The Incredibles’ rank right up there with some of the finest movies I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure that for some people ‘Cars’ is right there too. For me, though, this movie was a peak into a world I don’t understand, talking about things I don’t care about, with a tone of voice I found kind of annoying.

‘Cars’ speaks to people on many levels. The most obvious are the ones right there on the screen. Car followers, racing fans, desert-dwellers, and smalltown boys and gals will all have familiar subjects to deal with. I’m a Yankee middle-class city kid who finds cars merely a conveyance, has never watched a race in his life, and loves the climate of the Pacific Northwest.

This movie was just not for me, and that’s very frustrating. ‘Nemo’, ‘Bug’s Life’, ‘Toy Story’ … these films spoke to (I feel) more or less everyone. We’ve all been too scared to do something, we’ve all felt like the outsider, and we’ve all had friends in trouble.

The contextual language here seemed much more limited in ‘Cars’. The elements of ‘the wise sage teaches the young man’ were certainly universally applicable, but I already knew that. There was a lot of visual and literal language analogous to a sporting event, and I just don’t care about sports. Most frustrating for me was the message of ‘old things aren’t bad things’ and ‘small town living is a good thing’. I just don’t have that kind of thinking in my background or my psyche. I don’t appreciate antiques, and find small towns pretty ho-hum.

Beyond the context and message, I found the tone of the movie very grating. Every film they’ve made has been (arguably) a children’s film. ‘The Incredibles’ probably less so, but certainly ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ are appropriate for pretty much anyone over the age of about 5 or so. The thing that I love about those movies are that they don’t talk down to kids by watering down anything or adding in some schmaltz. ‘Cars’ was laiden with schmaltz, and the characters felt incredibly flat compared to many of the other memorable bit parts we’ve seen in Pixar flicks.

Visually, of course, the movie was stunning, and the folks there at Pixar have a lot to be proud of. Even here, though, I felt cheated by the flim’s focus and context. Cars (even anthropomorphized), just aren’t as expressive as some other creatures. The desert just bores me, so all those sweeping vistas and panoramic views were completely lost on me.

I know I’m just a wet blanket, a whiny elitist who can’t appreciate the care and beauty of this film and its message. Feel free to say so in a comment. Just the same, there it is. I heard someone say about this film that it was like “an A student coming home with a B on their report card.” I’m going to be a prick and say that that’s generous. ‘Cars’ was a C effort, and I’m looking forward to future films to wash the fumes out of my mouth.

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