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Why ‘Cars’ is Pixar’s Black Sheep (Prius?)

For all intents and purposes, Pixar’s Cars is a delightful animated fantasy that fires on more cylinders than do many works from rival studios combined. But then comes that dastardly theory of relativity. Cars, of course, must always face comparisons to the impossibly high standards achieved by other films in the Disney subsidiary’s filmography, which many have deemed masterpieces. Clearling billions in merchandising and carrying a loyal fan base of young admirers for years after its 2006 release, Cars is still one of the most beloved animated properties. So, five years later the team is reassembled for another lap (warning: more car puns to follow) with Cars 2, so once and for all let’s take a look at why the original carries with it such (moderate) scorn.

The Voices of Reason

With the exception of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen’s involvement in the "Toy Story" trilogy, Pixar has opted for voice actors who fit the role and not stars who fit the marketing campaign. The likes of Ed Asner, Patton Oswalt, Craig T. Nelson (and even nobody in the case of WALL-E) have given life to the main protagonists. In a contrarian execution, Cars sported the more noticeable talents of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy (in his only notable role outside of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour), Cheech Marin and the late Paul Newman in his last role. I do, however, digress: all the voice stars, secondary or otherwise, do fine work. It is simply that their involvement spurs the debate that there were a great number of malleably voiced thespians that could have more aptly filled the openings, particularly that of sporty hero, Lightning McQueen.


Have a Heart

Subtle cancer prologues, robot love stories and the inevitable loss of childhood are not what we would have expected to come from animation (though to give Disney credit in the realm of kid-scarring, they did kill off a certain doe). Now, it is everything we come to expect and desire from Pixar and what makes their films true family viewing experiences. The young 'uns get the pretty colours and wacky character, while emotional depth is for the accompanying adults. The love story angle is quite shapr for Cars, as is a nice student/mentor relationship between Lightning and the aging Doc, but those dynamics are mostly skin deep (or in this case paint deep, I suppose) and replaced by sight gags and fast-paced race sequences. And though Ratatouille may have given some reason to douse their kitchen in Lysol, cars make for much colder characters than those of the human, toy or fuzzy (if albeit disease-ridden) variety. Again, I’m not trying to grind this movie into the ground; I’m just telling it how it is.

Money Money Money Money…Moooooooney

Mostly confirmed by the existence of a sequel, at least part of the decision to make Cars, call it "Cars" and sell a whole lot of cars (more palmed-size of course), was the tap for profit beyond the screen, and boy did they hit the proverbial well; Cars 2 is on track to sell more tie-in merchandise than any film in existence, a mammoth number considering Toy Story 3 raked in $2.8 billion since last year. Of course there is never a studio movie made without some consideration of box-office returns and other possible veins for revenue, but some reek of ulterior motives more than others. I would equate the original Cars somewhere around gasoline — pleasant in a whiff, less so when exposed for too long — and its sequel closer to sour milk. 


Hitting the ‘G Spot’

As I iterated, dead wives and supervillains bent on killing their nemesis are not exactly kid friendly, and though a number of Pixar’s offering are curiously rated G when at least a PG should be in order, you can’t get much more down-to-earth than a car (a fast car looking to achieve his dream is just candy). What little boy doesn’t like to play with a car? As such, Cars is a little too vanilla for its own good with all edges cleanly polished away emerging as a smooth package that is easy on the eyes but gives nothing in the way of emotional, poignant horsepower. Films with a G rating are a relative rarity as they usually incite the black cloud that is discouraged parents and ultimately result in a limited audience. Toy Story 3, which clearly reached an audience far beyond its normal demographic thanks to the test of time, would be the exception. With Pixar at the creative helm of current animation as a genre, one would expect a lot more as it is their image that gets those bodies into seats.

Formula (One)

Cars’ alien-like world inhabited by only automobiles is by far the most unique and ultimately perplexing facet John Lassester inserted to his film, as evidenced by The Karate Kid on wheels and hand-drawn Doc Hollywood. Cars offers a basic, back of the Shake-'N-Bake box recipe plot at its fullest: protagonist is at the top of his game, falls hard, learns a moral lesson and succeeds because of it and with better intentions. I would expect standard-order fare from newer and still-yet-to-find-their-stride studios such as DreamWorks and Blue Sky, but not Pixar, especially since the original film debuted at the height of its rise. Perhaps it is a backhanded compliment that Cars is their worst, as truly it is a very enjoyable film and one I have seen and grinned because of on numerous occasions. No entity, be it movie studio, author, corporation, musician or human being for that matter, should be expected to never falter. Holding those involved for concocting some sort of travesty is greatly unfair. Cars may be viewed as a spin-out for the animation giant, but miles of open road ahead hint to many wins to come (ok, the auto puns are done now, I promise).


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