Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Studies in squareness: "Cars" charms, " "Truth" alarms


directed by John Lasseter
voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Tony Shalhoub, others

I once told a friend that there are two types of people in this world: Pixar people and DreamWorks people. It comes down to this: do you prefer the “Toy Story” movies or the “Shrek” movies? Or, if you branch outward to the other animated films released by each studio, you have on the one side “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles,” and on the other, “Antz,” “Madagascar,” and, uh, “Shark Tale.” Oh yeah, and “Over the Hedge.”

Ok, so once you get past “Shrek," the comparison really starts to feel unfair. Admittedly I’m biased, because I’m a Pixar person all the way. (My friend is just as emphatically a DreamWorks gal.) My point, however, isn’t that Pixar films are by definition superior, but that there’s a profound difference in spirit governing Pixar films and those of DreamWorks or for that matter most other animation studios today. It was really “Shrek” that introduced what might be called an ironic postmodern sensibility into the realm of animated kiddie flicks. Not that it had been entirely absent before—there were hints of it in earlier Pixar and even Disney movies (watch “Aladdin” and you’ll see it there)—but “Shrek” probably marked the first time it pervaded the entire film; quite cleverly and effectively, I might add. Unfortunately, “Shrek” also paved the way for a string of far inferior animated movies that interpreted its success to mean that jokey adult and pop culture references could take the place of a compelling story and characters, and that smart was the same thing as smart-ass.

The wink-wink element has always been present in Pixar films, too, but with a difference. Pixar films are all, at some level, about the transition from innocence to experience, and while they’re not afraid to mine the incidental humor of that transition, fundamentally they take its implications quite seriously. This is true even of a movie like ‘The Incredibles,” which beneath its shiny surface was far thornier than the average Pixar production. Pixar’s latest effort, “Cars,” perhaps more than any of its previous features, expresses that earnestness—that squareness, if you will—in its simplest and most undiluted form.

“Cars” inhabits a world recognizable as our own, except that the sentient beings are, of course, cars of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Our hero is a hotshot racecar named “Lightning” McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who, though a rookie, is a prime contender to win the biggest race in the country, the Piston Cup. He’s a superstar in the making, fending off reporters and photographers at every turn. He’s also a reckless, selfish, egotistical punk who thinks he’s the shit and, more stupidly, thinks he can go it alone without help from anyone. (Tom Cruise could have played this part in his sleep, back before his crazy phase.)

Time for an attitude adjustment and some good ol’fashioned “life’s lessons learned”? You bet. And our boy gets it, courtesy of an accidental detour onto route 66—the all-but-abandoned freeway—and into Radiator Springs, an all-but-abandoned little town “that time forgot,” or rather, that the world forgot once a new, straighter interstate was built some miles further away. Having wrought major damage to the town’s main road, Lightning is first impounded (heh) and then sentenced to repair the road. At first he rebels and tries to get away; failing that, he resigns himself with ill grace to the task of repaving, and during his enforced stay gets to know the town’s small but colorful collection of inhabitants. Foremost among these are “Doc” Hudson (Paul Newman), a crusty old codger who, it turns out, has a lot more to teach the young hot rod than the latter realizes; a cornpone ya-might-be-a-redneck-if tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) who introduces Lightning to the joys of cow—er, tractor—tipping (a hilarious sequence, for anyone who ever grew up in a rural area); and an attractive Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) who used to be a lawyer in L.A. (yeah, you read that right) before deciding to leave behind life on the fast track. Inevitably, Lightning learns that there are things more important than celebrity, big endorsements, and eager groupies, and when time comes, puts that newfound knowledge to the test.

Sounds a bit cheesy, and there’s no doubt you can see every turn in the story from miles off. Yet “Cars” really works, perhaps because there’s something genuinely appealing about its sturdy belief that the up-and-coming generation of me-firsters should understand the importance of taking time to know your neighbors, help them out, and enjoy their company—and, most interestingly, of respecting the past and your elders. When Lightning finally has his epiphanic moment in the final lap of the Piston Cup, I actually felt a tear in my eye.

It helps, of course, that the animators have made the cars as anthropomorphic as possible without losing a bit of their essential car-ness. You may never have seen a car sigh before, but you’ll recognize it when you see it here. The animation alone, not just of the characters but also their surroundings and backdrops, is worth the price of admission; only in a movie theater can you appreciate the astounding texture and fluidity that put Pixar in a class of its own. NASCAR fans will no doubt love the humorous and affectionately detailed shout-out to a sport that is, after all, as quintessentially American as baseball and apple pie. (Though there is also a funny nod to the international racing circuit as well.) But you don’t have to be a racing fan to appreciate the beauty of the America “Cars” really celebrates and sketches with a sweeping, slightly misty (electronic) brush that would have done the Hudson River School proud—an America of spacious skies, deep desert canyons, lofty waterfalls, and winding roads that, to paraphrase the movie, curved with the land rather than cutting through it. “Cars” is also in love with its vision of small-town America of days gone by—of places with drive-in theaters, diners, and shops where you could get truly personalized service, and neighborhoods where everyone knew and looked out for each other, and where people weren't in such a tearing hurry to get somewhere or something done.

Unfortunately, this Rockwellian yearning for simpler, more innocent times is in some sense a yearning for an idyll that never really existed. As depicted here, it takes the form of yearning for a specific period in the past—the ’50s—that, as we all know by now, had a distinctly sordid underbelly beneath its serene surface. Still, to the extent “Cars” extols a code of old-fashioned community-building values that’s become increasingly archaic in today’s busy world, it’s a paean not so much to an actual past as to an ideal that we know we should strive for but for whatever reason—ambition, social pressure, even survival—many of us continue to bypass. Seen in that light, “Cars” is more than a pleasant diversion; it’s a welcome reminder to stop and smell the exhaust.

That’s as good a segue as any into the other film I saw this weekend—AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, which makes those dear darling cars and their combustible engines suddenly seem a bit more sinister.

However, I find that I really don’t have much to say about this movie, though it’s not for want of an opinion. I’m a Democrat, I generally support the environmentalists, and I like Al Gore. That said, I tried to go into “An Inconvenient Truth” as an unbiased critic. (Ha. There’s really no such thing.)

What shocked me most about the film was how little it shocked me. Global warming, for me, is like evolution, in that I don’t understand why it’s even controversial in the first place. I really don’t. Call me crazy, but when something is accepted as fact by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, I tend to accept it, too.

Still, even if you’re already accepted the fact of global warming, the statistics and pictures Gore provides to show just how accelerated the threat has become are pretty damn scary. If you haven’t accepted it, you are the movie’s target audience, and I beg of you to go see it, and to see it with an open mind. No, it’s not particularly cinematic. Yes, it’s basically a documentary about Al Gore giving a slideshow presentation—the presentation he’s given hundreds, if not thousands, of times before—on global warming. And to a lesser extent it’s about Gore himself, and the personal motivations that made this a personal as well as public crusade. Cynics might say “An Inconvenient Truth” is just another campaign vehicle for a 2008 presidential bid. But don’t be fooled. The Al Gore you see here is a man on a mission, and there’s something unmistakable in his tone and gaze that shows the depth of his conviction, something we didn’t see enough of six years ago. It’s not loopy, tree-hugging, sky-is-falling scaremongering. It’s a clear understanding that the scientific facts point to a problem that needs to be addressed now, as a reality, and not as some remote hypothetical. And it’s in that spirit that “An Inconvenient Truth” approaches the problem, and in that spirit that it deserves to be seen and understood.