Have you noticed that even as professional movie critics toss well-deserved bouquets at Cars, the new animated film from Pixar and Disney, many of them temper their praise with “yes, but…”?
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times: “The movie is great to look at and a lot of fun, but somehow lacks the extra push of the other Pixar films. Maybe that’s because there’s less at stake here, and no child-surrogate to identify with.”
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle: “In a way, ‘Cars’ can be regarded as an experiment, to find out if a dramatic Pixar animation (albeit with a few comic interludes) can work artistically. That remains to be seen, but I think the relative failure of this movie can be measured in the answer to this question: Who would you rather look at in a scene about a young man’s education, Owen Wilson and Paul Newman, or a computer drawing of a red and blue car? ‘Cars’ might get us into car world as a gimmick, but it doesn’t get us into car world as a state of mind. Thus, the animation, rather than seeming like an expression of the movie’s deeper truth, becomes an impediment to it.”
Brian Miller of Seattle Weekly: “Though now the highest of high-tech computer animation companies, crown jewel of the tarnished Disney bonnet, Pixar here gums up the circuits of its latest model with too much nostalgia…(snip) …When the camera pulls back to reveal the old, gracefully meandering highway and the new, linear interstate that replaced it, Hunt’s character tells Wilson, ‘Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.’ Their romantic drive together amounts to a Miyazaki moment, a reconnecting with nature, and Wilson concedes, ‘It’s nice to slow down once in a while.’ (Later, there’s even a sappy James Taylor ballad mourning the loss of pre-Wal-Mart Main Street.)”
Note the tenor of the criticisms excerpted above. Everyone agrees that Cars is entertaining and looks great, but — these critics say — the movie either obscures deeper truth or dwells too much on it.
A Freudian might suggest that these critics are children of the Sixties who are ambivalent about the Fifties, but while there may be something to a quip of that kind, it’s too facile by half. I do think, however, that whatever their ages, the critics who take shots at the nostalgia in Cars would look crossways at nostalgia in any venue.
If you knew nothing else about a movie than that most of its plot hinges on scenes in a town off Route 66 called “Radiator Springs,” you’d guess that the film in question probably didn’t involve an alcoholic detective’s search for a serial killer, or a poster that screams “the next off ramp could be your last.” “Route 66” itself, the Mother Road, is a name to conjure with, far more so than, say, Interstate 5. What Cars offers instead of mayhem, deconstruction, and angst are lessons in character development and coping with loss, which are good things to know about.
Critic Brian Miller ties himself in knots because cars that “stop to smell the roses” never leave the asphalt, and are thus “implicated in the same modern sprawl that [director John] Lasseter hates.” Meanwhile, Mick LaSalle wonders why the automobiles in this movie without people have interiors, and speculates that it’s “for no discernable reason, except maybe as some evolutionary holdover.” Both men are missing the point — this is a movie (ostensibly) about cars, but it’s made by and for people, and even a fantasy world requires recognizable cues. With Cars, we actually get more than that. Conservatives revere those parts of the past that are worth celebrating, and so do the cars who’ve turned Radiator Springs into a functioning if hardscrabble hamlet. That James Taylor song to which Miller objects isn’t sappy; it’s poignant.
Cars understands and shares the progressive mantra that everyone is special, but not by suggesting equality of outcomes: Lightning McQueen is demonstrably faster than most of the other cars in the movie, including his “best friend,” Mater the tow truck. But Mater, though drawn and voiced like the automotive equivalent of a hayseed, is a perfect foil for the self-obsessed race car. The tow truck has only one working headlight, but can drive backward like nobody’s business. Ditto Ramone, the low-rider voiced by Cheech Marin, who knows all there is to know about automotive paint, Guido, the little tire changer, and Sally the Porsche, who’s not just another pretty bumper. In other words, some of these cars are in better shape than others, but all have a certain dignity, prickly (like Paul Newman’s voicing for “Doc Hudson”) or otherwise.
AS PIXAR FILMS GO, The Incredibles, with its ode to marriage and family, was more recognizably conservative. It’s also safe to say that Pixar meant neither The Incredibles nor Cars as propaganda pieces in support of a particular worldview. But there’s a reason why the relationship between Sarge the Jeep and Fillmore the VW van plays more like the Odd Couple than like the Hatfields and McCoys. The two vehicles run shops right next to each other, with Sarge selling (what else?) military surplus gear and Fillmore touting a custom blend of “organic fuel.” In the movie’s one recurring joke, Sarge begins each day by raising the American flag outside his shop to the loud, military-style accompaniment of a bugle playing “reveille.” Five or six bars into that, Fillmore opens his shop for business by cranking up the famous Jimi Hendrix version of the Star-Spangled Banner on electric guitar. Neither vehicle says “good morning” to the other. Instead, Sarge yells “turn that junk down!” and Fillmore yells back that “you gotta respect the classics, dude!” And the irony in the gag is that both statements are fundamentally conservative.
Another theme in Cars is the idea that “it’s all about the journey, not the destination.” A salute to that in tribal memory is what makes Main Street anywhere more memorable than interstate highways everywhere. But you don’t need a sheepskin from UC Berkeley and a VW van in pastel colors to appreciate that allegedly progressive aphorism. Francis of Assisi understood it well, and Mother Teresa was fond of pointing out that “God doesn’t call us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful.” Which, when you think about it, is another way of saying precisely the same thing.
Wonder of wonders, living with that attention to “the eternal present” in mind tends to pay off in the future, too. If, like me, you grew up thinking that misers like Ebenezer Scrooge were conservative archetypes, you might be surprised to realize that they aren’t. In fact, conservatives are more adept at recognizing the value of the present moment than progressives are. Progressives are fixated on the future by definition, else they wouldn’t forever be “progressing” towards one utopia or another. Which brings us back to the movie, because it’s only after a rookie race car (or an unreflective human) learns that the journey matters, too, that the destination (a Piston Cup, or heaven) means anything — and you can’t get either one on your own. In short, there’s more going on under the hood of Cars than Roger Ebert and his amen chorus tend to see.