Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/08/06 23:58:19

"It's Pixar. 'Nuff said."
5 stars (Awesome)

By now it has become so widely known as to just how good Pixar is at doing what they do that the company’s name has become film critic shorthand for the very possible best in animated filmmaking. Countless reviews of other CG cartoons include the phrase “it’s no Pixar,” or “it’s almost as good as Pixar,” or maybe “Pixar did it better.”

Their secret is hard to pin down - they focus on storytelling, but that is not all; they set the bar for remarkable animation, but that is not all. I believe their success comes from their goals: while other studios are busy making movies that will be popular for the season, Pixar aims to make movies that will be remembered forever. Much like how Disney’s early works are still enjoyed by children to this day, Pixar’s titles will undoubtedly be passed on from generation to generation in the same manner, while most of the studio’s rivals’ efforts will have been forgotten beyond the realm of nostalgia. (Indeed, Pixar’s first feature, “Toy Story,” at a mere 12 years old, is already hailed as a timeless classic.)

“Cars” is the animation studio’s seventh film and their last one made before merging completely with Disney. (Before, Disney would release Pixar’s movies but have no hand in making them.) It is telling that even if it is, as some say, the weakest of their seven, it is still a most exceptional work, funny and warm and beautiful and awe-inspiring and nothing short of absolutely wonderful. I spent the entire running time captivated by this gem of a movie.

In the world of “Cars,” there are no people. In fact, there are no animals at all. Nothing but cars (and trucks, and SUVs, and tractors…) rule this world. Even the bugs are, well, Bugs, of the Volkswagen variety.

In such a world, auto racing would naturally be the sport of kings. And so we meet Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a candy apple red speedster and rookie star of the racing circuit. His success has led to cockiness, and his cockiness leads him to tie, not win, in the final race of the season. And so a tie-breaker race is scheduled. But on the way there, Lightning gets stuck in Radiator Springs, a dusty, forgotten town along legendary Route 66.

The plot the takes familiar turns - Lightning causes trouble with the town folk (town cars?), he falls for a lovely Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), he slowly befriends his new quirky neighbors, he eventually must decide between the fast-paced lifestyle of a racing star or the simpler life of his new small town. What I’ve always found fascinating about Pixar is how they manage to incorporate well-worn material yet never make it feel tired or hackneyed. Through a combination of clever dialogue and character development, the studio breathes new life into dying plotlines. It’s amazing to watch “Cars,” knowing full well how things will turn out but still finding yourself engrossed in every aspect of the story. Pixar gets more out of a cartoon character than most live action movies do with real people.

What’s even more amazing is that once again, Pixar relies not on a single voice for their script, but on a committee. Eight names are given story credit, and at any other studio, this would be the kiss of death, a case of too many cooks. Here, under the guidance of director John Lasseter (the big man on Pixar’s totem pole, director of the company’s first three films and producer of their second three) and co-director Joe Ranft (the brilliant, invaluable creative force who sadly died last fall), the screenwriting group comes off less like a series of hack rewriters and more like an all-star team. Lasseter’s quest for perfection in his films means he’s unable to turn away a good idea, or to listen to criticism that leads him to dumping bad ideas. And so this team takes this basic premise and molds it until it becomes a character driven story with a heart to guide it and a sharp wit to make it lively.

And so, yes, we get the expected series of car-related puns that always pop up in cartoons about non-humans living in a human-ish world: there’s Jay Limo with some jokes; the TV delivers some “braking news;” Lightning professes to “float like a Cadillac, sting like a Beemer.” But the movie is smarter than just this, getting laughs out of, say, guest appearances from the “Car Talk” brothers, or casting George Carlin as a VW minibus who brews his own organic fuel. We even get cow tipping, in the form of tractor tipping, in one bizarrely ingenious scene.

More than catchy jokes, however, Lasseter and company work to build an actual world here, one not merely reliant on the gimmick of the premise. Just outside Radiator Springs sits a run-down drive-in theater, and I’d like to think that yes, in a world populated by cars, a drive-in is exactly right. And in a bit of history mirroring our own country, the birth of the interstate led to the death of the small town and the scenic drive. There’s even a scene that features a potential rebirth for Radiator Springs, and we discover a 1950s paradise where cruising (of course!) is the Friday night date activity of choice.

Even the animation itself works itself into actually giving serious thought into designing a world. Of course the animation is incredible all around (we get so much detail that the roads actually have realistic pot hole patches, and racing scenes look pretty much like the real thing, minus the big cartoon eyes, that is), but I can’t shake one notion out of my head: all the desert rock formations and landscapes come in the shape of cars. Namely, tail ends of fin-sporting classics, sticking up from the ground like in those classic tourist traps out west.

And the film never makes a big deal out of this. It’s something for the viewer to discover, a discovery which will earn big smiles - and this movie is loaded with so many discoveries like this. A lot of care went into this movie, not to cram cheap jokes into the corners of the screen, but to cram in brilliant little asides. This is a film that demands to be seen over and over again (especially on a big, wide screen), just to get the chance to soak in as much as possible.

Ah, but it all comes back to story and character, Pixar’s specialty. There’s something enchanting about the inhabitants of this world, from the cocky-but-innocent Lightning to the joyous energy of the Italian tire experts Luigi and Guido to the gee-whiz hick charm of a rusted tow truck by the name of Tow Mater, who is voiced by Dan “Larry the Cable Guy” Whitney in a performance so infectious in its happiness that I have actually come to like - nay, love - something that Larry the Cable Guy has done.

And then there’s Paul Newman, making his animated voice-over debut here as Doc Hudson, a 1950s Hornet who’s the town’s medic, judge, and all-around keeper of common sense. Newman’s performance is as intricate and engaging as anything he’s ever done before; Doc is world weary but wise, tough but tender. If you would ever ask for a car that looks the way Paul Newman talks, Doc would be what you get. It’s perhaps the most perfect pairing of voice and character in animation since Ellen Degeneres shined as Dory in “Finding Nemo.” And like that performance, Newman here gives more than anyone would ever expect from a cartoon.

Indeed, there’s absolutely nothing I can say against “Cars,” as flawless a piece of family entertainment as one could hope to get. It’s lively and wonderful and simply brilliant from start to finish. There must be something in the water over at Pixar, with this being their seventh straight work of absolute genius. Bring on number eight.

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