It's ironic: when the teasers for Cars hit the theatres, I felt everything CKL did about the movie. All of Pixar's previous movies were about characters that looked like people or were at least living creatures. Toys (that resembled people or animals), people, insects (that we know form societies), even monsters (which have always been living). But cars?? It seemed like too much a stretch; it would be too forced and I would always see them as these talking, moving gimmicks -- not as characters. And without being able to see them as characters, I wouldn't feel what they feel. Without that identification, it was going to be tough to really get engaged.
The full-fledged trailers came out, and still, I thumbs-downed it. Lots of flash and race cars. But without people, or things that resembled people enough, just wasn't interesting. At the end of the day, my favorite movies have always been about interesting interactions between people. (Friends with Money was a recent favorite even though the plot doesn't really go anywhere, and it's definitely low on flash.)
I went to go see it tonight because it was getting some good reviews, both from critics and friends. Even as I was sitting down in my reclining theatre seat, I remembered thinking, "I should have waited for the DVD because not only am I lukewarm on it, it has neither action nor sweeping landscapes which make the theatre experience worth it."
I was wrong on all counts.
The story is not tremendously novel. It's been repeated many times before -- hotshot lead character learns there's more to life than their selfish, ladder-climbing plans; and it takes a slower, simpler perspective to reach that Great Realization. But two things from Cars left a lasting impression on me:
1) Beauty. Pixar went all out in this one. The beginning race track scenes spit the energy and excitement of a race and and there are some shots where it approaches real life. Later, some shots of open scenery are just astounding. The movie theatre is definitely the place to appreciate this. They also must have spent a lot of time on how the cars move because the movement makes them seem like people. (*Slight spoiler alert* There's a key scene between Jake and Sally half-way through the movie when Jake says thank you to Sally for the first time (for allowing him to stay at the motel instead of the impound), that makes you forget they are cars.)
And that brings me to the key strength in Cars...
2) Character identification. Aided heavily by natural movement, Cars also shows off lots of effective dialogue interplay. It took me a quarter of the movie, but half an hour in, I started to think of these cars as people talking to one another. So when the story progresses, I did feel the same sense of discovery, pain, disappointment, longing that each of these characters did.
It was such a complete experience that I kept feeling like something was missing from all of our cars in the theatre parking lot after the movie. With monsters, insects, toys, this might not be so challenging, but the fact that they did this with cars is what made this one of the best movies I've seen recently.
Some postscript notes:
- I won't deny that logically, much doesn't work out in the Cars world. CKL is right -- in a world where no one has hands (only tires), why do gas pumps have handles? But given the strength in what I find core in movies, that became much less glaring to me.
- I recently saw The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Movies like that typically make me want to drive/race afterwards (to my wife's consternation). but it didn't. What did? Jake and Sally's ride through the desert in Cars!
- In retrospect, the plot of this movie follows the plot of Doc Hollywood almost exactly.