Friday, June 09, 2006

Anthropo What Now?

Hey, remember when we killed all the humans?
As I was saying: "Cars" opens today, and while I'm sure it'll make a bundle at the box-office -- that's a given -- I'd also be willing to bet we're about to be inundated with thumbsuckers along the lines of "Has Pixar Lost It?" in the weeks to come.

For the record, I myself do not believe Pixar has lost it. But the studio might have lost its way, a little.

Technically, "Cars" lives up to the impossibly high standard John Lasseter and his band of cheery digital elves have set for themselves from the first, but from a narrative standpoint, the movie just doesn't work. The story meanders, the characters don't have the depth to engage us for two full hours, and the conceit of the picture is fundamentally flawed in a way that's completely new to Pixar: The world just doesn't make sense.

After you see the movie, ask yourself this question:

Where did the people go?

"Cars" posits a world inhabited entirely -- exclusively -- by talking cars. They mimic human behavior, even splitting themselves into two distinctive genders, and they use the language of our society to communicate. They don't just speak English, but they read it, and apparently they write it as well, despite their lack of visible appendages.

Some cars are shown using their antennae to point and grip things, and there are lots of pedals around for tires to "step" on, but the idea doesn't hold up: It's as though Lasseter and his design crew had to come up with a quick answer to the arms-and-legs problem in some late stage of pre-production, and went for the first rationalization that came to mind.

But once the movie gears down into its endless second act, and we have plenty of time to be distracted by questions like "If they all run on gas, how are they refining the oil?" and "Why do the names of the cities, towns and highways all have human origins?" and "So, does their history start in the early 1900s?"

A key plot point revolves around a Shed That Is Not To Be Used, which Paul Newman's cranky town doctor car guards with some ferocity. About halfway through the movie I became convinced that the last humans were trapped in there, working as slave labor to repair the wrecked vehicles that Newman was supposedly "fixing". (Imagine the final graphs of Stephen King's great short story "Trucks" taken to its logical conclusion, or a twist ending straight out of "Planet of the Edsels".)

The ultimate secret of the Shed is a lot more prosaic -- and surely John Lasseter surely certainly never considered taking his movie into such dark territory -- but I kind of like my idea better.

Also opening this week, in a gratifyingly wide release, is Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion". As someone who breaks out in hives whenever Garrison Keillor starts unloading his folksiness, and who finds Altman to be a filmmaker of remarkable talent and maddening inconsistency, I was dreading this one, but I flat-out loved it. You probably will, too.


Bill C said...

That lack of a human presence really disturbed me from the first full-length trailer for the film, when you could see that the NASCAR (and why is it still NASCAR?) stands were filled with other cars. The tongues, though, are the icing on the creepshow cake.

5:19 PM  
Tybalt said...

Not that I want to pick on you, but whatever happened to the suspension of disbelief? Why is it necessary to depict a vision of the world that coheres right down to the floor of the oil refineries, in order to amuse children? Or adults, for that matter?

I can't imagine you'd be nearly as hard on a live-action film with an entirely incoherent world. Do you ask the same questions of every movie that renders conversations in English when really they should be in German, French, Chinese or Hebrew? That seems to me a much bigger problem.

4:21 PM  

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