Reports of Pixar's demise have been exaggerated, although perhaps not greatly.

You've probably heard by now that Cars is the least of the seven feature films produced by that animation studio. I'm not going to dispute that. However, given the enormous quality of the six films Pixar made between 1995's Toy Story and 2004's The Incredibles, "least of the seven" still leaves a lot of room to be pretty damn good.

It's not that it's an unoriginal story (although it is): sentient racecar gets stranded in a backwater desert town, resents it until he comes to appreciate the locals, learns that it's better to be decent than successful. It's every "city boy in the country" film ever made. But narrative originality wasn't exactly the point of A Bug's Life (the nth version of Seven Samurai) or Finding Nemo (a father braving everything to save his boy). Like those films, Cars is about taking a well-worn tale and tweaking it, telling it in a specific way that could only be achieved through animation.

In this case, talking cars.

That's the problem, right there. Bugs can be made cute. Fish can be made cute. Monsters can be made cute. But when you make the choice, "we shall have talking cars," you have to make cars cute. Or at least appealing. And I'm not sure that's happened here. I'm not slighting the animation: the cars look exactly like cars with mouths at their fenders and eyes on their windshields should look. But that leaves us with the fact that cars with eyes on their windshields look kind of grotesque.

That's pretty much the worst thing to say about the film, though. If I have one other complaint, it's the sense of scope: in every previous Pixar film, there's a sense of goggle-eyed wonder at the world, whether it's a suburban house from a toy's perspective, or the alt-society of Monsters, Inc. (I still remember seeing that room full of doors for the first time, and being five years old again). I want to know more about the monsters' society; I don't really about the cars' society.

But if Cars lacks scope, it makes up for it in scale. The American Southwest is impossible to fuck up on film, and lo! it appears to be impossible to fuck up on a computer. The setting of the film is simply beautiful. I can't think of any cartoon of any era to showcase such frankly epic vistas. And of course, much of the film is set at sunset (golden hour is much easier to work with when you can create it at will), and so it gets even fucking prettier. And then in what is easily the best-looking scene in the history of CGI animation, we see the town at night, lit up in neon of every color. It's the sort of moment where you don't really want a good story, lest it interfere with your appreciation of the look of the thing.

Despite what I said above, the film isn't devoid of narrative appeal. It's undeniable cute and charming, aimed squarely at delighting the young and the "young at heart," if you'll forgive an unforgivable cliché. Of course, this was precisely what made Toy Story work: it was for everybody's inner eight-year-old. The seeming rejection of Cars is a recognition of the fact that Pixar is in a post-Nemo, post-Incredibles world, and having made two great cartoons for adults more than kids, they've seemingly regressed. And while The Incredibles has infinitely more to say, it's just being peevish to say that there's something wrong with telling a simple story well, and being extremely charming in the process.

A last thought: the film is nothing so much as a love letter to Route 66 and the car culture of the 1950's. Which is of course at odds with my idea of it being a kids' film; but I think what it taps into is less the love of vintage things, and more the memory of when it was suddenly possible to drive across the country, and the feeling of infinite horizons that arose from that moment. It's not about being the parent behind the wheel, feeling the purr of the engine at your feet; it's about being in the backseat, watching the landscape roll by.

Reviews in this series
Cars (Lasseter with Ranft, 2006)
Cars 2 (Lasseter with Lewis, 2011)
Cars 3 (Fee, 2017)