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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cars is a work of fiction. Cars 2 will be, too. You should probably know this.

So. This happened. You should go read it.

You should probably know I enjoyed Cars. I will also be seeing the sequel in theaters, because I have seen all of their films in theaters, and don't intend to miss it. Even so, I sort of wish Trish had inverted the order of topics in her article--the Jurassic Part IV why commentary is funny and insightful.

But, with regard to Cars, here are the issues:

"It's explicitly been made as a moneymaker, even though PIXAR doesn't really need one."

Every studio needs moneymakers. This is how the artists involved with the project get paid. PIXAR makes money, and they make moneymakers. This allows them to continue to hire artists and animators. This is a good thing.

"Why the hell are we not getting an 'Incredibles' sequel instead of this?"

Because "The Incredibles" is Brad Bird's property, and he's open to a sequel if he can come up with an equivalent or better story. That's why.

"It's fairly common knowledge that "Cars" is widely considered the "least best" PIXAR film."

I don't. I regard PIXAR's first feature length film, Toy Story, as its weakest entry. It's still a pretty good film, but it was also their first film, and one might expect that. I'm also perfectly comfortable with breaking ranks with other PIXAR fans over this issue; they don't see Cars the way I do, and after reading what Trish has written, I now understand why.

I don't think their reasons have much validity beyond "it wasn't my bag," which is perfectly fair. But many of the objections concern things which are either silly or irrelevant to want in a film like Cars.

"First off, [Cars is] very definitely a film for little kids."

Yes, animation companies occasionally do this. Doing so doesn't always necessarily distract from the experience of watching it (cf. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, &c.). My experience watching Cars differed from Trish's, however, in that I actually really enjoyed the film. I'm nearly 40, and so hardly in the targeted demographic Trish suggests the film is for. (I do, however, collect toys, so, you know, there's that, though not any of the Cars toys.) Oddly enough, even my Dad seemed to enjoy it. And my Dad actually hates animation. Cars might be for the little kids in all of us. That sometimes happens, too.

"As in, it makes no damn sense, and the more you're forced to think about it, the further you're sucked out of the story."

This is a criticism which I always found silly, frankly. The world of Cars is obviously one of cars, of automobiles; where we would see faces (as pareidolia, no less), in the world of Cars the cars see cars; hence the referential aspects of it. But I see we are prepared to overthink this, so:

"It's too bad, then, that almost no thought went into issues like, if they're cars, how -and why- did they build the houses?"

The houses &c. are set dressing, not crucial plot points. The environment is intended to evoke the feeling of civilization by way of caricature and allusion, not be a precisely analogous and literal interpretation of human civilization. The characters don't need to have a completely logical and thoroughly thought-out mechanistic reason for being there to tell the story. This is necessary only when it matters to the plot (cf. the functional design of Monsters, Inc.'s power plant, for example).

The photorealism of the world arises from PIXAR's raison d'ĂȘtre; that objects will be rendered without causing the viewer to question their substance:


  • The objects will be seen to exist in three dimensions (even if they are only projected in two, and only exist as intangible geometry and math accessible via high-end workstation hardware and completely proprietary software).
  • They will have weight (even though the weight is merely a principle of animation, an illusion of motion, which is itself, an illusion of static images being played back faster than our eyes can register them individually).
  • They will even appear to be alive (if a brave toaster is a character, it will at least sometimes seem to breathe, because in animation, lifeless things do not breathe).


I don't see why anyone should feel "forced" to think about the world of Cars, or any movie which features talking inanimate objects (or, for that matter, talking animate objects which are not also humans). But if they are, why are they thinking about these things, instead of the characters or the story? No aspect of the plot really hinges on the world crafted for Cars, their origins, or why they are the way they are.

If we ask these questions though, we should also ask:
  • What's the deal with the monsters in Monsters, Inc.? How can screams be equivalent to electrical power?
  • Why are there talking fish in Finding Nemo? How can a shark survive without eating fish? What do the sharks eat? Why are all the younger fish schooling in the same school, instead of with members of their own species?
  • Nobody really has superpowers. And dude, there's no such island as Nomanisan. I checked.
  • Toys don't come to life when you're not around.

And we can do this for non Disney films and stories:

  • Why are some Transformers common household objects and others vehicles? [Go on, ask me.]
  • Why is Mrs. Frisby in the Rats of NIMH able to talk at all, even though she was never at NIMH? Or the Owl? Or any of the other non-NIMH characters?
  • A mouse named "Ralph" riding a toy motorcycle? Give me a break, he should be pooping in bread and eating food left out in the pantry. Mice don't ride motorcycles, even toy ones.
  • How can an ant and a grasshopper even talk, much less to each other?
  • Why would any fox want grapes up on a vine instead of a mouse, rabbit or some nice carrion? That's like me hungrily eyeing a bunch of pinecones. Aesop's. Worst. Story. Ever.
  • Talking crickets are impossible and absurd, even in Times Square.
  • I'm so sure One Ring could do all that just by being chucked into some lava.

As you can see, this sort of criticism is kind of pointless. Sometimes stories are allegoric, sometimes not, some create devices to ease the presentation of ideas which might be harder to deliver when spoken by human characters (this likely goes back further than Aesop), and some stories are purely for entertainment (Cars).

So who made the cars in Cars? Who made the toys in Toy Story and why did they infuse them with magical life? Does anyone really care about this by the end of Toy Story 3? It's as relevant to the experience of watching these films as knowing who the first grade teachers are of characters in any Hitchcock film. (In Rope, it might technically matter. In Rear Window, it doesn't.)

(I am not saying plot holes do not exist in film. A scene in The Matrix where everyone in the Matrix is described as batteries always jumps out at me, because we, as the audience, must accept that an otherwise indifferent AI would spend more energy than it could ever receive out of keeping a bunch of humans all happy and warm as power sources when it could simply go nuclear without regard to external environmental consequence. Humans are a pesky and expensive power drainsource. Nuclear could be completely human-free and the only people willing to object (like Greenpeace) would be safely and impotently trapped in the Matrix, which then could be farmed for solutions to external problems the AI minds find intractable. But I digress.)

Why does a firetruck in Cars grow flowers? Because the notion of a firetruck being a watering can is amusing. Knowing why they are growing the plants isn't important. I think it's a good film if the filmmakers can take subjects I'm utterly indifferent or even hostile to (cars, auto racing, Route 66), and make me interested in the world they make for it. That's the mark of a good film, in my book.

But, your mileage may vary.

3 comments:

Zach said...

I may have to write a response to your response!

Trish said...

First off, let the record show that the Art Evolved gang is potentially going to argue with itself (ourselves?) over... "Cars 2". O_o

Well, Scott, you've written a very well thought out rebuttal here. I am going to shake your hand and respectfully disagree with you. Let's go back to racking our brains over what we're going to create for the Carboniferous Gallery.

ScottE said...

@Zach: I look forward to reading it! The conversation matters more than anything to me.

@Trish: I can dig it.

There is an aspect to Cars I didn't get around to discussing (since it isn't relevant to your objections), which is also more technical in nature.

Until Ratatouille, it was the most beautiful animated film I'd ever seen, due in no small part to the perfection of the shaders. PIXAR hasn't always been the best at this. Other studios have created much better-surfaced geometry for the whole of their films. Cars was the first film in which PIXAR outpaced virtually everyone in terms of creating truly awesome shaders. This matters to me, since I'm aware firsthand of how painful and difficult it can be to create great -looking shaders. Technical though it may be, it is High Art when it is well accomplished.

The Carboniferous Gallery has already been settled as far as my entry is concerned. Watercolor may be involved.