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Pixar’s Cars: Doc Hollywood redux

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer


Pixar's latest, while still a great animated remake of Doc Hollywood, is the least of Pixar's eminent stable of movies. 

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“Is this the way to Grady?”

I’m pleasantly surprised to report that the basic concept of Cars – that is, anthropomorphic cars – didn’t creep me out as much as I thought it would. Heck, I wound up enjoying the movie  quite a bit, even though the filmmakers didn’t flesh out its central conceit enough, and even though the movie was a point-for-point remake of an old favorite, Doc Hollywood.

Let’s discuss the shallow conceit first. OK, so it’s a world of anthropomorphic cars – and to be sure, fun details fill the scenery like rock formations that sweep out of the earth like the fins of a ’57 Chevy – but they skimp on other details. For instance, why is the hick town where Owen Wilson’s hotshot racecar gets stuck given the appropriately car-y name Radiator Springs, but city names like Los Angeles and Hollywood ramain unchanged? If this is a world of anthropomorphic cars, why are there also anthropomorphic planes and helicopters, too? Is it a world of anthropomorphic cars only or vehicles in general? If it’s a world of anthropomorphic cars, wouldn’t the planes be, like, anthropomorphic cars that flew? Why were the box-lifting rigs considered “human” cars while tractors were considered subhuman cattle?

CC2k staff member Lance Carmichael told me I was overthinking this one, but I submit that crucial questions like these should perplex us in the same way that watching Pluto and Goofy onscreen together should.

But back to a clear-headed and reasonably non-insane analysis of this solid flick: Where will we place it in the Pixar Pantheon? Keeping in mind that I haven’t seen Finding Nemo, I’ll offer this informal ranking:

1. Toy Story 2. I do not invoke the following movies lightly: Toy Story 2 falls into the same proud company as The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Godfather, Part II. All are some of the greatest sequels – indeed, the greatest movies – of all time, and all surpass their original chapters by expertly continuing their narratives and expanding upon their universes.
2. The Incredibles. Granted, I have a hard time judging this movie rationally because it involves superheroes dealing with familial dischord with Joss-Whedon-caliber emotional intensity, good humor and good-heartedness. From the punch-in-the-sternum perfect family scenes to the rousingly executed superheroics, it’s maybe the greatest comic book movie ever.
3. Monsters, Inc. Gentle corporate satire mixed with a wonderfully realized monster subculture and some great parental themes. The last image can still reduce me to a blubbering wreck.
4. Toy Story. Still a classic. Still a perfectly realized world and an exceedingly clever story engine.
5. A Bug’s Life. Perfectly acceptable fare, but I would place it in a two-way tie with …
6. Cars.

OK, so a last-place finish for Cars seems pretty harsh, right? Well, when it comes to Pixar movies (and Star Wars movies and David Lynch movies and Joss Whedon movies/TV shows), saying that Cars is the worst is Pixar movie is like saying it’s the worst blowjob I’ve ever received – it’s still pretty fucking great. Choosing anthropomorphic cars is maybe a weird choice – how do these things mate, for example? – and even though they don't take the world to a fully satisfying Flintstones extreme, by setting this movie in a world of living cars, they got to spend most of the story in a stunning, rainbow-desert, butte-and-mesa, dusty western setting. What makes the setting most striking (besides its natural beauty) is how by choosing that setting and populating it with metal-and-chrome creatures, Pixar chose nothing but elements that they could digitally generate with absolute accuracy. I’m not kidding – the movie often looks like they hired anthropomorphic cars and filmed the damn thing!

What holds Cars back from being a full-blown masterpiece is, again, its unsatisfactory conceit and reliance on cliches.

That’s right – the geniuses at Pixar actually relied on cliches for one of their movies. It had to happen sooner or later, and they still evade the most tiresome cliches. Example: When the media finally figures out where Owen Wilson’s missing hotshot racecar – aptly named Lightning McQueen – is, the usual cliché choice would be to have McQueen instantly forget about the nice yokels he befriended, but the Pixar guys wisely make McQueen unable to concentrate on his return to competitive racing.

But unfortunately, by borrowing so liberally from the Doc Hollywood formula – an admittedly effective one – they lose credit for their strong choice because of its unoriginality.

Cars also ventures into oddly unsettling thematic territory with its exploration of how the U.S. Interstate system has pretty much done away with leisurely, cross-country trips that take us through small towns and down winding state highways. What bothers me about this theme is how it combines a gooshy affection for natural beauty with anthropomorphic creatures that by their very nature pollute and destroy nature. Yeah, yeah, I know – I’m being way too literal again, but even though I’m an odd breed of liberal because environmental concerns have never captured my imagination, I felt myself squirming in my seat at the sight of Humvees on screen being played for laughs in a movie where the very rock formations of this alternate earth resemble car parts.

Whatever. I’m being way too literal, and I invite you CC2kers out there to discuss this flick and Pixar’s other masterful works in the forum.

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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