Cars (2006)

2011 #90
John Lasseter | 112 mins | DVD | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / G

CarsSince the creation of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, only two Pixar features have failed to win: Monsters, Inc., which lost to Shrek — surely a key computer-animated film in anyone’s book — and this, which lost to Happy Feet, which was… well, it was quite good…* Obviously this does nothing to help dismiss Cars‘ reputation as Pixar’s worst film. But then, that reputation doesn’t warrant dismissing.

Much has been criticised by others, but my biggest problem is that it’s a bit predictable, kinda like Pixar/any kids’ movie by numbers. Pixar are usually better than that. There may be one or two slight surprises along the way — mostly in aid of a Good Strong Moral Message for the kiddies — but at times it’s a bit thumb-twiddly as you wait for characters to reach the point they’re inevitably headed for. It goes about these in such a long-winded fashion that it drags in the middle.

In a special feature on the DVD, Lasseter talks about how it was a very personal film, with a story inspired by his own family and past, as well as the Pixar crew’s road trip along Route 66, with events from that directly inspiring elements of the final story. I think this shows on screen, but not in a good way. It’s another reason the film is allowed to be occasionally long-winded and indulgent. No doubt it led to some of the best bits — the sequence where The Girl Car (I forget her name) tells The Main Car (McQueen! I remember that one) Everybody's friendshow the building of the interstate killed off so many small towns is both historically accurate (more or less) and emotional — but I imagine it also explains why the film can feel so long.

This could be alleviated by the characters, but they’re not all that. Every one is lifted from a book of stereotypes, with such unfailing tedium that I can’t be bothered to list them. Some are moderately likable and occasionally they’re nice to spend time with, but it’s not a patch on any other set of Pixar characters — it can’t reach Ratatouille, never mind the Toy Storys.

The races — read: action sequences — are exciting and fluid. But then, would you expect anything less from Pixar? But then, with the film’s other failings, it’s good to see they haven’t lost all the magic.

I’ve often heard people criticise the world of the movie for not making sense but never understood why, because it doesn’t necessarily matter. But it does play on your mind while watching, and because it shouldn’t matter I think it’s indicative of faults elsewhere: if the characters and story were keeping your attention, if the film was consistently funny or exciting or engrossing, you wouldn’t be wondering who built these cars, or where their builders went, or how they reproduce… It’s like a child’s game writ into film: you can imagine a young boy playing with little toy cars, The races are goodhaving them talk to each other and giving them personalities, and it doesn’t need to make sense because his age isn’t even close to double digits and he’s just playing. But does that make it a viable idea for a film?

Aside from being Pixar’s Bad Film, Cars has become best known for the marketing machine it turned into, in particular the masses of high-selling model cars that have been churned out on the back of it. I don’t know how intentional this was — not as intentional as it seemed to be for the sequel, I suspect — but once you know where this ends up it’s reflected back into the film. McQueen sports at least three different paint jobs, for instance — that’s a handful of model cars right there, and if you make them in different sizes… Disney accountants must have been rubbing their hands in glee when these things started selling. It’s disappointing that this seems to have been the motivation for Pixar creating their second franchise, but hey, if the money brought in by a Cars movie’s merchandise every five years allows them to keep pushing (albeit gently) at the boundaries of mass-(Western)-market animation with the likes of WALL-E and Up, then I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.

Cars in loveCars is undoubtedly a below-par Pixar movie. It’s not a bad film — it has funny bits, exciting bits, a good moral message, some nice cameos and references and that kind of thing — but it doesn’t stand comparison to even a regular Pixar outing, never mind the best of their output. But hey, if you can produce 10 features that manage a 90%+ score on Rotten Tomatoes, I think you’re allowed a 74% slip-up.**

3 out of 5

Cars is on BBC Three today at 9pm, and again on Sunday at 7pm.

* Based on its reception, Cars 2 may well be added to this list. Potentially beaten by Happy Feet Two. That’d be kinda funny. ^

** Other review comparison and aggregate websites are available. Does not include Cars 2, which scored 38%. (Ouch.)

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