“Okay. Focus. Speed. I am speed.”
Although it met with only middling reviews when it hit the big screen, Pixar's latest animated triumph still pushed the boundaries of what CG movies could do. With John Lasseter returning to the director's chair for the first time since Toy Story 2, ambitions and, more pertinently, expectations were high for the studio's next big feature after the phenomenal success of The Incredibles. Sadly, the end result confounded the critics and, worse still, failed to engage audiences who, anticipating wild and zany characters wrapped up in an equally wild and zany scenario, just saw the somewhat whimsical odyssey that superstar racing car, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) goes on as a step back from the showboating form that placed Pixar at the forefront of the animated game. Now, with the film's arrival into the DVD pitstop, the chance has come to redress the balance, and sit back and enjoy the admittedly simple story on its own uplifting terms.
The story is vintage Disney, given the luxurious shot-in-the-arm that only Pixar can pull off convincingly these days. Self-centred hotshot Lightning McQueen loses his transporter truck Mack, voiced by animated regular John Ratzenberger, and winds up in the quiet, forgotten town of Radiator Springs - a 50's throwback to America's final pioneering days, an enclave that once thrived on the traffic taking the historic two-thousand mile Route 66, but has since lapsed into a forlorn shanty now that an interstate highway has bypassed it. To McQueen, who starts out as a kind of prisoner after raking up the main street during a panic-attack at finding himself lost in the sticks, this is hell on four wheels, a blighted outpost way beyond the world he knows and loves. With a championship race looming, to win the coveted Piston Cup and defeat his green-painted nemesis, Hick Chick, McQueen must re-spread the ruined roadway in an act of Community Service under the watchful eyes of buck-toothed pickup truck Mater and the town's ruling body of ex-racing icon Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman), and be on his way. But, in the time-honoured tradition of soul-discovery, the slick superstar will find a way of life, and a roster of colourful characters that will shake his ethics and his principles to the core. It may lack the wit and ingenuity of The Incredibles and the light fantasy riffs of Monsters Inc or the Toy Story couplet, but Cars has enough heart and soul to fill the gas tank, gun the engine and take you cruising for a fun-filled ride, even if that ride takes in slightly more sight-seeing than you may have expected.
“Mack? I ain't no Mack! I'm a Peterbilt, for dang's sake!”
The funny thing is that even this free-wheeling animated saga carries on the strange fear that American suburbia has for its rural neighbours. We're not talking The Hills Have Eyes here, obviously, but the initial mood is one that smacks a little of the Outback-drama The Cars That Ate Paris, and even cult 60's serial The Prisoner, in that once McQueen hits town there appears to be no chance of his escape - the ethic being that integration is unavoidable. And it is a clever conceit. Check out the way in which the locals positively engulf a couple of tourist cars that accidentally stray into their domain, for instance. Or the luring intoxication of the neon signs decorating the town, virtually acting like those fluorescent lights set up to attract and eliminate flies. Of course, there is nothing that sinister about this car-ruled world, although I must admit that it could be a tad irresponsible to show hotrod-joyriders ganging up on the sleepy truck ferrying McQueen across the nation and playing high-speed tricks on him to force him off the road, just for kicks. This sequence leaves a slightly nasty aftertaste, I'm afraid.
“Float like a Cadillac ... sting like a Beemer!”
When the action comes, it is spectacular. I'm no fan of motor-sports at all, but there's no denying the sheer visceral rush that the two big races book-ending the film supply. The camera-work manages to place you on the hood of the cars or beneath them, facing their roaring approach or positively reeling in their slipstream. There are some terrific overhead views of the huge stadium and its infinitely populated grandstand, with every pixel employed to convey the sense not just of scale, but of busy, bustling life and multi-coloured excitement. Pretty soon, it becomes easy to forget to be wowed by all this spectacle, the eyes growing accustomed to such sensory overload, but, truth be told, Cars is simply mesmerising in its immersive fantasy-world creation. Stunt-wise - for so energising are some of the speeding crashes, flips, turns and skids that you can imagine little pixel-composed drivers emerging battered and bruised from their vehicles after Lasseter has called “Cut!” - the film packs in quite a few wallops. Look out for the thunderous, heart-in-mouth, fly-over and barrel roll towards the climax, which really soars with gasp-inducing exhilaration. A sideways skid, a trick learned from Newman's cantankerous old pro, feels weighty and will have you shifting from buttock to buttock on your sofa. And look at those clouds of dust and dirt kicked-up behind the churning wheels - finite particles that billow and waft with utter realism. A few spins around the desert track during the slower mid-section of the film keep the momentum rolling, as well as providing some necessary plot development. But watch out for those cactus-spines - with animation this sharp, you can almost feel them yourself as McQueen splash-lands in the middle of them. Taking the creepiness out of Polar Express's uncomfortably spot-on visuals but retaining images that can appear, to all intents and purposes, like bonafide, genuine vehicles and locations - so long as the characters' cartoonic eyes aren't in the shot, that is - Cars further cements the bond between pixels and the real world, bringing the sleepy little hamlet of Radiator Springs to humming life. What they did with the jungle in The Incredibles, Pixar now achieve with the deserts of the American West, the endless dusty black-top, the heat-obscured mountain ranges in the distance and the naturalistic scrublands, painting them exquisitely across sharply delineated and panoramic vistas that unfurl before you like a big love letter to John Ford's beloved Monument Valley. The icing on the scenic cake is surely the wistful tyre-track cloud formations that snake across the sun-brightened blue skies. But prepare to be awed by their tree-lined drive-by and the brief shot of a cascading waterfall.
“Don't you leave me here! I'm in hillbilly-Hell! My I.Q.'s dropping by the second!”
Owen Wilson wraps his western-drawling tonsils around the character of McQueen with ease, assuming the role of the soul-searching speedster with charisma and personality to spare. Never pushy, nor overbearing, he imbues McQueen with such a likeable charm that his odyssey is less of a transformation, and more of a self-realisation. Larry The Cable Guy's dilapidated old pick-up truck Mater is a hoot from the get-go, the automated embodiment of the grizzled old cowpoke with only rust and a decades' worth of dust holding him together. Paul Newman makes a fine stab at playing Doc Hudson, the star of bygone times, his gruffed-up voice and steely, hard-bitten attitude fitting for a car that has tasted glory and then felt the cruel sting of rejection. He brings with him a world-weary bitterness that recalls his turns in The Colour Of Money and Road To Perdition, and if he sounds a little too forced when it comes to opening up and, subsequently, joining the team, his visual counterpart supplies endless gravitas to keep the sentimental motor running. Bonnie Hunt's curvy little corvette, Sally, plays the town like a crippled old violin, treating it and its denizens with love and compassion. At first she sounds a little too sparky, which is fitting for sparring with McQueen but not so convincing when we trace her roots and undying passion for the Radiator Springs of yesteryear. But the double-act with Wilson's preening-come-yearning McQueen forms the kiss-and-tell heart of the story - the all-too-obvious love interest that makes the ultimate payoff a rosy-cheeked and smirk-inducing one. There is also able voice-support from the likes of Tony Shalhoub from TV's Monk as the irrepressible Italian garage-owner Luigi, the ever-reliable John Ratzenberger as McQueen's road-napping transporter-truck Mack, Cheech Marin's nostalgic romantic Ramone and Michael Wallis' old school police car, Sheriff. It is also nice to hear the manic tones of former Batman Michael Keaton as McQueen's obsessed race-rival Chick Hick - his taunting dance-and-chant routine is priceless.
“Doc, you look great this morning. Did you do something different with your side-view mirrors?”
The sight gags are a clever collection of asides too, though they probably hover somewhere between those that tickle the kids and those that slide just beneath the grownups' radar. The Jay Limo Show and a desert-cammed armoured humvee with Arnie's voice are nice little touches, though. But the stampede of a herd of mooing tractor-cattle, and the nifty creation of tiny VW beetles that are literally little winged car-bugs, are the things that cracked me up the most. When the old shanty-town gets a neon-coated kick up the backside, the rejuvenated population do a pure 50's bop down the main drag, bumper-to-bumper, and the whole road-trip era of the West's halcyon days comes poignantly to life. The only thing missing is that clichéd Rodeo Motel thumbing-cowboy sign ... although, if you look closely, I'm sure that it is blinking away in there somewhere, too.
Playing as much as an ode to the western genre's dwindling days as it does to the mythology of Route 66, Cars paints the landscape it details with lashings of evocative style, the clinging to crusty-but-true old values as ever-present as the moral backbone to the story as any of the sentimental, life asserting syrup that we have come to love from the studio. The message here seems to clearly state that we should all stop and admire the view as we thunder along our own individual paths, making time for those travelling beside us. America's love affair with the open road has never seemed more colourful, vibrant, or quite as important. The country's history is inextricably entwined around the highways and interstates that criss-cross it like veins, and if it takes an animated film to breach that cultural divide that still appears to segregate its rural citizens from its cityfolk, then that can only be a good thing.
Yes, the film does a drop a gear or two. In fact, you could say that it pulls into a lay-by for quite a long spell. Its theatrical release was plagued by critics bemoaning this down-pacing and, to be blunt, when I first saw Cars I felt almost exactly the same way. This seemed like a radical error of judgement from the masters of animated adrenaline - to wit Monsters Inc's hectic narrative, Toy Story 2's cavalcade of set-piece abandon and The Incredibles' all-round action and super-charged verve. But now, on DVD and in the comfort of my own living room, this foot-off-the-pedal risk taking actually pays off a great deal more. The sedentary corner-turn that the film makes does lose the kids though. My own son - a movie-addict (like he could avoid that with a film reviewer for a father!) and a pure Pixar-junkie - tuned-out from the story at the flicks, and still doesn't care much for Lightning McQueen's adventures even now. However, I find myself enjoying them more each time I watch it. Perhaps it is the lush setting, so fabulously captured, or maybe it is the simple, take-your-time philosophy that underpins a story purposely unfolding at a leisurely pace, pronouncing the epiphany that Lightning McQueen goes through. I don't know, but I left the cinema thinking that Cars was a film I'd pick up more out of collecting duty than out of love. But now, after writing this, I can't wait to watch it again. Radiator Springs may be the quietest lil ol' backwater hick-town, but it has a slow-seeping atmosphere of warmth and character that really grows on you. I can certainly think of worse places to end up.
Cars may not be up to the standards of The Incredibles - I'll take superheroes over super-vehicles any day (and there's nothing here that is as sexy a collection of pixels as Elasti-girl, that's for sure!) - but it is bright, effervescent and packed to the gills with charm and a sense of genuine nostalgia that is hard to beat. It didn't work at the cinema, but sure crosses the finish line in winning style on DVD.