Unfortunately, my fears about this movie were justified -- it was very pretty, and generally entertaining, but it falls quite clearly short of the mark set by previous Pixar movies. (In fact, I think A Bug's Life will no longer be the worst of them; Cars is more generic and a bit duller than Bug's Life was.) Of course, "not all that good for Pixar" is not a horrible curse; Cars is still a noticeably better movie than Over the Hedge, for example. But it's not all that much better than Over the Hedge (or Ice Age 2, for that matter) and those movies have a lot of unfortunate similarities:
- a large cast of broad, "wacky" characters, seemingly designed for merchandising
- teaches an obvious moral lesson any simpleton can see coming in reel one (and the same lesson in all cases)
- features intrusive sentimental songs to underscore "heartwarming" montages
On top of all that, Cars actually features many, many more wink-wink grin-grin in-jokes than Hedge does -- some of them I caught as jokes, some of them I noticed whizzing by (even though I didn't know what would have made them funny) and, I'm sure, some of them missed me entirely. This is unfortunate, since one of the things that Pixar had done best in the past is creating an entire, separate, self-contained universe for their movies to take place in. References to our world -- particularly just to get a quick laugh -- break the verisimilitude of the fictional world, and make it that much harder for a movie to continue on its own terms. Quite simply, every in-joke reminds the audience that it is watching a movie. The big emotional moment at the end, for example, depends heavily on the audience recognizing that "the King" is voiced by Richard Petty, and so investing that underdrawn and not-very-interesting movie character with his real-life gravitas and history. And there are similar moments all through the movie -- like Star Wars Episode III, this is a movie that borrows emotional capital created elsewhere and spends that to generate its effects. Other examples: Jeremy Piven is the voice of the shark-like agent, Bob Costas and Darrell Waltrip voice the announcers, and a couple of parts are voiced by what seem to be non-actors from the real racing world (Sheriff and Tex). It's all much too much.
Unlike most Pixar movies, the plot is very easily synopsizable: self-centered hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (I still hate that name) accidentally ends up in (and half-ruining) a rinky-dink town, and finds love and friendship as he fixes what he broke. Everyone learns a lesson: that traveling at 45 miles an hour over a twisty road is morally superior to driving 65 on a straight, level road. And, of course, We All Need Friends.
The dialogue is excellent as always, though I couldn't understand some of it (probably due to dialect issues). And a lot of it just stands alone; many of the characters are just there to be "the hippy car" or "the low-rider," so they tell jokes based on those stereotypes, but fail to change, grow, or be real people. Unlike most Pixar movies, no minor characters have arcs here: it's all about Lightning, and he's really not likeable at all until about halfway through the movie. The other characters are just there to bounce off of him. Also, there are two different #2 male characters -- Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) -- which gives the movie an uneasy structure. I also couldn't believe that Lightning would become that friendly with Mater that quickly -- Mater is, frankly, a buffoon. He may be a buffoon with hidden depths, but I really doubt a self-centered jerk like Lightning would even notice those depths (or care) in the course of a week. They become "best friends" because the script -- and the Hollywood stereotype -- says that they should, not because it really makes sense.
The film is visually stunning though; if I had a chance to see it in IMAX (especially 3-D IMAX), I'd definitely go again. The colors are vibrant and clear, all of the models have just enough give in them to be believable as both real cars and living things, and the sets and backgrounds are just stunning. All those things, which Pixar traditionally does well, are state-of-the-art here. But the other things that Pixar traditionally does well -- those story elements that are much more important -- are not handled as smoothly, and don't seem to have been as important in the development of the movie.
All in all, it was a disappointment, though. It really is "Doc Hollywood with cars," and no amount of fancy lighting effects or mush-mouth Owen Wilson lines can obscure that. We all know the plot going into the movie, and we always know what's going to happen next. (Which was not the case with the better Pixar movies.) And I really didn't get a real sense of camaraderie from the cars, the way I did from the Andy's Room Toys or the Tank Gang.
I wonder if John Lasseter being the director of Cars had anything to do with its flaws. Yes, he did direct the two Toy Story movies (and Bug's Life, let's not forget), but Pixar has grown since then, and he's had a lot of responsibility added to his shoulders. Is there anyone in the creative end of Pixar who could have told him, "you've got some heart here, but you don't really have the story yet"? Because, from the previous Pixar behind-the-scenes DVD documentaries, it looks like it was always Lasseter who poked those holes in everyone else's plots and storyboards -- so there may not have been anyone to do the same for him when he needed it. (And, sad to say, he really did need it.)
I also note that, according to IMDB, ten people get screenplay or story credit for this movie, so there may be a "too many cooks" effect.
However, hope springs eternal, because the trailer for Ratatouille (next year's Pixar movie) was wonderful -- and it was wonderful in all the ways that the Monsters, Inc. and Incredibles trailers were wonderful, and the Cars trailer wasn't. (The Cars trailer basically said: Wow! Look at how cool these cars look! Check out this new world we've created! Don't you love this stuff! Whereas the other trailers gave you a slice of life from those new worlds -- I've always particularly loved the Monsters, Inc. teaser, with Mike and Sully bantering after they fall into an empty kid's room.) Ratatouille does suffer a bit from tell-me-the-story syndrome (there's this rat, you see, who lives in Paris, and he'd rather eat good stuff than garbage, but also would rather not get killed), but the trailer focuses on the characters and their interactions with each other, which is always what has made Pixar movies great. So I do have something to look forward to, but I just wish Cars had been more of a movie and less of an ad for NASCAR on the one hand and John Lasseter's romanticized youth on the other.