The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Full review behind the jump


: John Lasseter, with co-director Joe Ranft
: Story by John Lasseter, Jorgen Klubien, and Joe Ranft, Screenplay by John Lasseter, Jorgen Klubien, Joe Ranft, Don Lake, Phil Lorin & Kiel Murray, and Dan Fogelman, with additional screenplay material by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Bonnie Hunt
: Darla K. Anderson
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Whitney (aka Larry the Cable Guy), Cheech Marin, Tony Shaloub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, Richard Petty

John Lasseter’s
Cars is an expansive and visually-inspiring love letter to road trips, tourist traps and the highways and natural landscapes of America. And it has the character of a road trip, too, passing through a changing countryside, following surprise tangents, embracing the unusual and unexpected, but never quite staying anywhere long enough to get to know it as well as you’d like. There’s always a new and inviting destination ahead, and always something receding in the rear view mirror you hope to re-visit with greater thoroughness someday.

Set against the unnaturally-high expectations that accompany any release from the animation wizards at Pixar (who know their reputation well enough to tweak it, stay through the end credits), it seems like a relaxed, rambling work, less ambitious in emotion even as it splays across its most broad and beautiful canvas yet. Although full of delights for all ages it tells a story filled with grown-up yearning, and a passionate argument for life at a lower velocity. The urgency of its story is quieter.

It’s lost none of Pixar’s delight in whimsical gags or fascination with how to anthropomorphize the inanimate. But there’s a final layer of detailing and tightening that seemingly was skipped – its characters are a bit simpler, their motives a bit easy and constrained. And the parallels between the human world and the all-automobile world created here are most often surface puns. We don’t get that glimpse into a convincing, organic alternate universe that we’ve come to expect, more often we end up asking what sentient cars would need to plow a field for (even if the tractors are a hilarious creation). These minor flaws are perhaps only noticeable because of Pixar’s unparalleled streak of excellence, and should not steer you away from a warm adventure story that deserves to be seen on the big screen for proper appreciation of its colors and vistas.

Our hero is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a race car eager for the life of fame and riches he was designed (bred? manufactured? The movie doesn’t address the tricky subject of automotive reproduction) to pursue. He’s arrogant, shallow, and has driven off his maintenance crew with his egomania, but he’s still on the brink of being the first rookie to ever win the coveted Piston Cup. In the point standings he’s in a dead heat with legendary champion “The King” (Richard Petty) and bitter life-time runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) – put those two down as characters I was hoping to learn a great deal more about.

But a twist of fate knocks him off course en route to a race in California, and he ends up stranded in the forgotten town of Radiator Springs. Once a rest haven for travelers along Route 66 – the “Cozy Cone” Motel, with rooms shaped like giant orange traffic cones, is a visual kiss blown to the iconic Wigwam Motel in Rialto – it was abandoned to dust and disrepair when the high speed interstate passed it by. Now a straggling band of eccentrics keep things running in the hopes they’ll be wanted again someday.

There’s Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a spirited Porsche who left a fast-paced life in order to find some inner peace. And Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a gruff vintage sport car with a secret – Newman’s 81-year-old voice indeed sounds like the rumbling of an old but powerful motor. And the buck-toothed tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), whose optimism duels for supremacy with his naïveté.

How does one make a tow truck “buck-toothed”? And what would a semi-truck look like while trying to keep itself awake on a freeway at night? (The answer to that question is: very funny.) Part of Pixar’s consistent charm is how it obsessively plays fair with the details – as if they choose their subject matter by gauging how geeked they are to learn everything about it. Because these autos must emote from forms that are designed to be rigid, the animators cannot go for the kind of down-to-the-smallest-moving-part accuracy that characterized, say, Finding Nemo. But they make up for it in the surroundings – the trees and canyons and towering desert rocks are barely a breath away from photorealistic. That breath is important to avoid clashing with the characters occupying it, I get the impression that the filmmakers now have the technology to go for nearly-indistinguishable authenticity, and must deliberately choose how close to come for maximum aesthetic appeal.

From that standpoint it’s hard to imagine Cars being much better. And as usual, every audience member will find side details to embrace – I was particularly partial to Guido (Guido Quaroni), the enthusiastic little sidekick at the tire store who dreams of performing a great “peet stop”. There’s a faint echo of the plight of the child prodigy in Lightning’s story – he’s got all the equipment he needs to be a champion, except for what he might learn from the normal life that was shed as excess weight. That doesn’t quite have the universal resonance to make for a truly overwhelming emotional experience, but that doesn’t seem to be Cars’s goal, anyway. It’s here to re-create for our appreciation the styles and ethos of a different era – an idealized version of one, sure, but that’s the reverential point of view that comes with age. You can’t pinpoint what was really good about what you had until it’s gone.

P.S. As is traditional with Pixar releases, the feature is preceded by an inventive animated short, in this case, the charming One Man Band, about a duel between gadget-laden street musicians.
It showcases both some rather ingenious instrumental contraptions and a lively score by Michael Giacchino which renders dialogue unnecessary.


  • A poor critique. Gramatically flawed and laden with unnecessary parenthetical phrases. Clear writing is an indication of clear thinking. Whoever wrote this was probably in a codine fog or missed out on a class or two along the way.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:47 AM  

  • Better than Casablanca!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:20 AM  

  • 9:47 - You misspelled "codeine".

    By Blogger Nick, at 10:41 AM  

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