Little Douche Coup
By Jeff Reichert
Dir. John Lasseter and Joe Ranft, U.S., Buena Vista
With John Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s Cars, the ever-growing commercial imperatives required to feed the beast that is Pixar have overwhelmed any sense of responsibility towards their audience. While the fledgling studio’s films thus far haven’t exactly been shrinking violets in the marketplace, the halcyon days of early CG filmmaking lent their anthropomorphized toys, bugs, monsters, and fish a certain brand of pioneer’s innocence in which their many, many viewers shared a certain willing complicity. We knew very well the films were meant to be endlessly reproducible vehicles for a new, shiny, plasticine universe of on-screen characters and attendant copycat merchandise, but all the same their technical perfection coupled with the occasional left-field reference (Tod Browning’s Freaks in Toy Story) or surprisingly well constructed, affecting narrative (Finding Nemo) allowed the more inane concerns of most children’s entertainment (see: Shrek) to recede in the face of such whiz-bang inventiveness. Wading through no fewer than four trailers for the latest in Pixar knock-offs populated with identically rendered talking bears, jungle creatures, and oddly shaped “humans” before reaching the Pixar short “One Man Band” that preceded Cars left this viewer nostalgic for a time when this style of animation hadn’t replicated itself well beyond the point of saturation. Are there really enough children in the world to sustain multiple CG animation franchises? I suppose I probably know the answer.
A nostalgic mood should have left me well prepared for a film as obstinately backwards-looking as Cars, yet I couldn’t help but find my experience with the film thoroughly marred by an uncomfortable new addition to the winning Pixar formula: crassness. Owen Wilson’s voicing of main car-acter “Lightning” McQueen notwithstanding, never has a Pixar film so directly and basely jumped on the bandwagon of a cultural zeitgeist, especially one that holds such symbolic power in current representations of the America sociopolitical landscape. (One can imagine Lasseter and cronies, arrayed around their Danish boardroom table in Northern California wondering what exactly it is that the American public wants out of animated films these days. A junior creative executive, thinking aloud: “Well, lots of folks seem to be into NASC…CARS! Eureka! Our next film will be called: Cars!” Backslapping ensues.) What there is of the narrative of Cars (it seems more interested in brain-shattering montage sequences and really nailing that particular play of light off of a finely waxed auto chassis) seems built around the dichotomy between fast-living on the race circuit and a lost vision of small-town Americana—a rhetorical maneuver as specious in the film as it is distasteful in reality. The culture of NASCAR and Cars want to have their visions of America both ways: modesty and humility in the product-endorsed fast lane; old-time, down-home values at 235 sponsored MPH. Lightning McQueen may find himself in the arms(?) of Bonnie Hunt’s Sally in a rejuvenated Radiator Springs (a close cousin to Colorado Springs where James Dobson’s fanatical Focus on the Family is based?), by the end, but what’s really changed here? Should “Red America,” if such a thing really, truly exists (hint: except for pockets of extreme evangelicals, it doesn’t) not have the right to films tailored for them? I suppose so; we are a highly focus-grouped and demographically targeted democracy—all are largely free to sell what they choose as long as they’ve got a ready buyer. But it’s somewhat sickening to find a formerly agnostic purveyor of children’s entertainments latching onto, and capitalizing off of, yet another object of mass production and marketing aimed directly at all classes lower than the true cultural elites (not Northeastern liberals, sorry) who stand to profit from its success.
For some, The Incredibles represents the apotheosis of the Pixar approach, yet most ignored the strain of virulently reactionary politics poking through its comic-book heroics. Sadly, Cars, which should have been as forgettable and vanilla as that Beach Boys album with the similar-looking car cover (that late-Eighties thing with “Kokomo” on it), is yet another step towards a fuller embrace of the American mythos spewed daily by conservative punditry. Given the relative lead-time involved in developing and animating their features and the impeccable timing of their two most recent films, the folks at Pixar might well represent our greatest political soothsayers. Should we take the announcement of Ratatouille, a feature about a Parisian rodent gourmand scheduled for 2007 to mean we should expect a Democratic landslide in ’06 midterm elections? (Actually, having just read the synopsis, we should probably expect more of the same, with our poor rodent hero forced to give up comte for velveeta.) Perhaps I overreact, but the terrible, terrible experience that was Cars makes me half want to go back and look for similar strains in their earlier films. Do the main characters of Toy Story 2 mirror the Al Gore/G.W. Bush showdown that would follow a year later? Does Monsters Inc. somehow relay the War on Terror into the realm of children’s fantasy? But to return to the subject at hand for a moment: Did I mention that the central conceit of Cars (that everything in the world is cars) becomes completely insufferable after about five minutes?