Voices by Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Daniel Lawrence Whitby, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger
Rookie racecar Lightning McQueen lives life in the fast lane until he arrives in the town of Radiator Springs, where he learns winning isn’t everything.
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Despite Pixar’s unparalleled success throughout the last decade, Cars remains something of an anomaly. Its 460 million dollar plus take at the box office, while impressive, fell far short of its predecessor The Incredibles and for the first time in its history, Pixar struggled to find critical acclaim. Naturally, the naysayers saw this as the onset of the studios inevitable decline, a forewarning which was not at all helped by long troubled Disney, who had purchased the studio in January 2006, just months before the film’s release. Yet in hindsight, the negativity surrounding this picture has been drastically overstated. Not only does it boast a highly respectable 75% fresh rating on review aggregate website RottenTomatoes.com, it features some of the most recognisable characters in recent cinema with merchandise profits reaching into the billions. One may also argue the case that far from being a wreck, Cars is in fact one of Pixar’s most emotionally satisfying films thus far.
Admittedly Cars is not an easy sell. On the surface it may appear that after the success of A Bug’s Life and both Toy Stories, director John Lasseter was scraping the creative barrel with another set of characters to accompany the already saturated back catalogue of anthropomorphised monsters and fish. The title itself does little to assuage doubts regarding the films originality and there is initially something undeniably eerie about a human-less world of talking vehicles. Yet once the setting is established, Cars reveals a deeply human quality that defies its glossy exterior.
Credit of course must go to Lasseter, a man whose capacity for strong storytelling is second only to Walt Disney. As evidenced in previous gems, he excels at expressing relatable issues through exciting metaphors. Cars is both a nostalgic tribute to the forgotten era of small town America and a personal proclamation on the importance of appreciating one’s surroundings, an idea which was apparently inspired by his own experiences of missing his children’s childhood. As the story oscillates between high octane action and the poignancy of a close-knit community, Lasseter’s ability for handling various materials is blatantly evident. True, the second act has a tendency to drag, bookended as it is between the film’s more exciting segments, but repeat viewings unearth a great deal more depth than one would have expected.
Randy Newman’s typically wholesome score is a fitting accompaniment to this paradigmatic slice of Americana. His usual jazz undertones are muted to a mere soupçon amidst a laidback ambience which is far more indebted to the mellow nuances of country music. It snuggles up pleasingly beside the beautifully rendered backdrop of Middle America, where sweeping vistas of golden deserts and carburettor shaped cliffs force the viewer to question whether or not what they’re watching is really a cartoon. Background artists rarely receive the praise they so thoroughly deserve and Cars is yet another testimony to their amazing skill in realising extraordinary surroundings. It’s a truly incredible accomplishment, even outshining the gorgeous undersea locales of Finding Nemo and is itself surpassed only by the jaw-dropping animation.
Many, myself included, would have deemed it unthinkable to attempt an expressive personification of a vehicle while still remaining true to its physical properties and limitations, yet somehow Pixar pulls it off. Each character moves with streamlined plasticity and the absence of limbs hinders neither their manoeuvrability nor believability. The performances are so captivating one forgets they are merely characterisations of inanimate objects and yet the attention to detail is so precise that one cannot fail to appreciate the intricacies of these lifelike machines. The opening sequence in particular is a thrilling tour de force combining action and comedy in a hyper kinetic whirlwind of zooms and quick cuts which faultlessly capture the adrenaline of motor sports. If the visuals tend to dominate, it is of no detriment to a story which, though awkwardly paced, has under its bonnet a bigger heart than most which surely demands a re-evaluation of its unfair position as Pixar’s ugly duckling.