Thursday, January 21, 2021

Reserved Seating Ranks the Pixars: CARS

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo whose lives are highways.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our Pixar series continues with a look at the John Lasseter-directed Cars, featuring the voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, and Michael Keaton. Cars tells the story of a hotshot rookie race car named Lightning McQueen (Wilson) who’s en route to the big Piston Cup championship race in California when he gets sidetracked in the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. After causing damage to their main street, McQueen must fix the road as punishment under the watchful eye of the mysterious Doc Hudson (Newman). While in Radiator Springs, Lightning makes friends with a tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (Hunt), the owner of a hotel for cars.

Cars was the black sheep of the Pixar canon for a while (until Cars 2 took the mantle) with many people accusing it of being an excuse to sell toys and/or a John Lasseter vanity project. After being universally loved through six films, Pixar was due (fairly or not) to be brought down a peg by some fans and Cars provided them the opportunity to do so since it was comparatively less ambitious (it’s basically an animated Doc Hollywood) and more niche than their earlier efforts. I’ve always wanted to like Cars more than I do. This recent viewing was my first watch of the film in probably 10 years or more and unfortunately it worked less for me than I remember. Cars isn’t terrible by any means (I have things I like which I’ll point out later), but I have trouble getting invested in the movie. The main issue for me is Owen Wilson as the lead; he’s an actor that immediately puts me at a distance. Because I’m not a fan and his voice is so distinct (making it impossible to forget the actor behind the character), it becomes a hindrance to my enjoyment of Cars. Also, the movie is slow and way too long. And then there’s Mater. And those James Taylor and Brad Paisley songs. There are a lot of roadblocks.

What do you think of Cars, Rob?
Rob: I think it’s Pixar taking a massive step back in creativity and ambition. This is the most down-the-middle, easily digested entry since A Bug’s Life, and I think that’s entirely to its detriment. The characters are thinly written, have no real interiority, and are mostly insufferable. I really dislike Cars. That said, it’s interesting to track it as part of Pixar’s overall growth as a company — this was the last film they made independently before being absorbed by Disney, so maybe it was intended to show the Mouse that it could do something that wouldn’t be too intellectually challenging for Kindergartners. Not a bad business decision, I guess, but really, really disappointing after The Incredibles.

I should admit that Cars was one of the first movies my son latched onto and insisted on watching every day, so the fact that I’ve had to sit through it two hundred times is definitely exacerbating my negative opinion. Regardless, this is easily Pixar’s early low point, a movie that somehow feels more toyetic than a movie literally about talking toys. It’s nowhere near as bad as Cars 2 (which makes the Fat Amy mistake by letting Larry the Cable Guy hijack the narrative), but we’ll get to that one in due time.

Adam: It’s funny you mention the kid element to Cars because younger members of my family also latched onto the movie and made me give it a certain amount of goodwill. I don’t like Cars, but their enthusiasm for it blocks me from hating it. #KidBump

Rob: That’s fair enough. But, alright, look. I don’t really want to nit-pick, but can we talk about the anthropomorphized cars? Nearly every other Pixar movie features the “What if ________ were just like people?” thing, but this is the first one to present a universe in which humanity is completely absent. Are cars born?

Adam: They’re immaculately assembled.

Rob: Lightning McQueen is super horny, so do cars mate?

Adam: Side mirror to gas cap.

Rob: How do they know, buildings?

Adam: Chutzpah.
Rob: And yes, I’ve heard the theory that Cars and WALL-E share a universe (meaning that Cars takes place on a post-human Earth), but that’s just fancannon. This isn’t me Cinema Sins-ing; I genuinely believe that Cars owes me an explanation for this. I resent Pixar talking down to me in this way. This is the kind of “It’s a movie for kids” stuff they’d been so good at avoiding.

Adam: It's on the line for sure. The animation and overall presentation are to the scope of the usual Pixar but everything about it intellectually makes Cars feel more like a Sony or DreamWorks animated movie. I want to talk about a few things I enjoy or have autobiographically to share about Cars.

• This movie tripped me out when I saw it in theaters in 2006. I remember going early in the morning to see it (9am screening) because I was embarrassed to be a grown man seeing Cars with anything close to a full audience. I’ve done this with many Pixar movies. From what I remember: Cars (9am), Ratatouille (11:45pm), Wall-E (9:30am), Up (9:30am) and so on. When I left the screening of Cars, something happened to me that’s never happened before or since. I was freaked out of the actual cars in the parking lot. Like I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that they weren’t alive after seeing a movie with living cars for 2 hours. 

• I love the Rascal Flatts cover of “Life Is a Highway.” The Tom Cochrane original is rock fucking solid so all Flatts had to do was trace.

• You know what movie is better than Cars? Trading Paint!

• I have a theory that bad movies make the best theme park rides and Cars supports my case. Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure is amazing and tricks your brain into thinking you’ve been too hard on Cars (critically, not side mirror to gas cap)

• I was on vacation at Walt Disney World the month Cars came out and remember it was at the AMC on property along with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (better car movie). I ended up seeing the Tyrese Gibson classic (?) Waist Deep, so it was like an inadvertent Six Degrees of Cars
• There’s a Car Reporter in the movie with the last name Turbowitz. So, in the world of Cars, there’s religion because she wouldn’t be named Turbowitz if there weren’t Jewish cars.

• The one scene I really like in Cars is when they turn on the neon to light up main street. It’s definitely the ‘pander to the adults moment’ in the movie (remember cruising?), but I don’t care. 

• Michael Keaton’s cool. This movie would have been better if it were about Chick Hicks.

Rob: See, I might be a little warmer on Cars if I’d had just one or two of those experiences. And I want to be clear: This isn’t an incoherent disaster, or anything, and I actually really like Cars 3. I think I’m just more interested in Pixar when it’s threading a very particular needle of emotion, philosophy, and entertainment. Cars is just too content with its gloss. I really do wish I liked it more.

Adam: I’m dreading Cars 2, which is the only Pixar movie I haven’t seen. I skipped ahead and did see Cars 3 (in theaters because it was playing in a Dolby Cinema) and had a Hitman’s Bodyguard experience where I was walking in and out of the movie, looking at posters in the lobby.

Reel talk: When I was watching Cars, I had a scary moment where I wondered if I was the Mater of F This Movie! I hope I’m not, but I suspect that I am.

I don’t think we have a Mater, honestly. I like to think of you as the Mack. Trustworthy, hardworking, and filled with bright electronics. I’m the Luigi, I guess. Anyway. What are we watching next week?

Adam: Our All Pacino series continues with a review of Stand Up Guys, co-starring Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. The trailer proudly announces it’s from the producer of Million Dollar Baby, which I thought was odd. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

1 comment:

  1. I like Cars 2. Me and Bob Thomas (Bobsheaux). The "Doc Hollywoodness" is what turns me off Cars.