I call it the curse of Brad Bird.
The guy worked as a director on the most successful animated
television series of all time, The Simpsons. Then he
directed The Iron Giant, possibly the greatest traditionally
animated feature film of all time, equal to Old Yeller
and The Lou Gehrig Story in its ability to make grown
men openly weep. Warner Bros. was shutting down their animation
department around his ears, but he managed to finish this masterpiece
anyway — and the studio rewarded him by releasing it with
the worst promotion campaign imaginable. Not surprisingly, it
died at the box office but slowly picked up steam by word of
mouth. Then when Warner Bros. had a chance to use its underground
popularity to make it a huge success on DVD, they dropped the
ball again with yet another ad campaign that made it look like
any generic, Saturday-morning cartoon. (Showing the robot firing
missiles with the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" playing
in the background. Really!)
It's no wonder he was gun-shy when he signed on with Pixar
to create The
Incredibles . . . the greatest 3D animated
I must admit that Toy Story 2 is one of only maybe
five movies in the world that I think are perfect. Everything's
timed like clockwork, not a single joke falls flat, and it defies
the odds by greatly improving on its predecessor, an already
beloved classic. Finding Nemo runs a damn close second.
But what gives The Incredibles the edge, in my opinion,
is its ambition to reach further. Like maybe no animated feature
before, it speaks directly to parents without ignoring the generations
in between. It dares to be dark without ever losing the audience.
What? Oh, the curse I was talking about? Well, if you look
back at the two years since The Incredibles was released,
there has not been a single good 3D computer-animated movie
to follow it. Don't believe me? Take a look at the list:
Kinda long, huh? Oh, and please don't say it. "My kids
liked it, and I thought it was cute." Spare me! While some
of them may have been mildly amusing, most were underdeveloped
exercises in futility and NONE were as good as either of the
Shreks or even one of Pixar's lesser efforts.
Luckily for us, Pixar has finally finished Cars, so
finally the curse can be lifted and the locusts can swarm back
to wherever they came from. Right?
When the first teaser for Cars appeared at the beginning
of The Incredibles, it was somewhat . . . underwhelming.
With the highly probable dissolution of the Disney/Pixar partnership
on the horizon, there was much speculation that Pixar just squirted
Cars out to fulfill its final contractual obligation.
Sucks for the audience, but with such an impressive body of
work under their belt, who could really blame Pixar for phoning
Having seen Cars a few days ago, I'm here to report
that they did put in a full effort on it . . . which
makes me almost feel worse about not liking it very much. I
expect I'll be in the minority on this, and I didn't really
think it was a bad movie, but it's easily my least favorite
I suppose there are several inherent factors that were destined
to keep me distant from it.
#1: I Like Cars and All, But . . .
Is NASCAR for real? Seriously, you can come clean with me.
By Occom's Razor, it's a lot easier for me to believe that Ashton
Kutcher put you all up to this as a huge practical joke on me
than it is for me to swallow that so many of you actually enjoy
watching cars make left turns for 100 laps. I just don't get
it, which may be why much of the charm of Cars was lost
The director, John Lasseter, is a real automobile aficionado,
which may explain why Cars feels self-indulgent. Especially
with the staggering amount of car puns tossed off:
"Ahhh . . . it's got that new movie smell."
"Life is a journey. Enjoy the trip."
"Get ready to roll."
"Two miles to the finish line."
"Our Cars Speak for Themselves."
"Gear up . . . "
"From the manufacturers of The Incredibles and
"The All-New 2006, Cars."
And those are all just from the taglines on the posters. Now
imagine me throwing those at you for the next two hours. Yes,
the movie is a full two hours — two hours plus if
you count all the bits going on during the end credits.
It's like the editor got stuck in traffic. (Sorry.) I guess
I'm just not that into cars . . . but then again I'm
not into fish either, so maybe that argument doesn't . . .
hold . . . um, water. (Sorry again. After awhile you
can't help it.)
#2: I Am So Over the Redneck Revolution
One of the most popular jokes in Cars is a scene where
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the tow truck, Mater, go
cow tipping, and the cows are tractors. It's the kind of quick
gag that peaks once it's spoken and you initially see the tractors,
but here they feel compelled to act it out. Several times. And
then revisit the joke a couple more times later in the movie.
Metaphorically speaking, I really don't like the way the whole
cow-tipping ideology has split our country. We're divided into
those who believe cow-tipping to be nothing more than an urban
legend and others who claim it's a fun way to spend a Saturday
night. I find myself in the third column of people who don't
give a rat's ass.
I can admit to watching plenty episodes of MTV's Jackass,
looking forward to Larry the Cable Guy's random appearances
on the radio back in the day, and being a lifelong fan of The
Beverly Hillbillies. But when "NASCAR dads" went from being
a backhanded euphemism to an accepted political demographic
during the 2000 presidential election, I started to sense an
ominous disturbance in the Force. I know it's rooted in our
culture's backlash against political correctness. But also it
parallels what happened in the 1970s with African-Americans:
the rise in prominence of the overlooked underclass —
But then after the full-on assault of Toby Keith's latest
war ballads, Jeff Gordon's face plastered over every item in
the frozen foods section, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour becoming
the Blue Collar TV series, and back-to-back movies like The
Dukes of Hazzard and Daltry Calhoun, I realized it's
nothing more than the latest fad co-opted by the machine for
squeezing more money out of us. I am officially over-saturated.
As much as I was initially looking forward to My Name is
Earl, by the time it actually aired on NBC I was already
done with it.
#3: I'm Immune to the O Factor
Quick! Name two movies in which Owen Wilson plays characters
that aren't alike.
Okaaay, how about ONE movie where Owen Wilson doesn't
play himself .
. . . Well, maybe we'll come back to that later.
I know you people love him anyway, and I like him too . . .
in concept. Which is basically my way of saying in small
I loved his cameo in The Cable Guy and he was my favorite
character in Meet The Parents. It just seems to be whenever
he's headlining a movie that I find myself checking my watch
more than usual despite his laid back, off-kilter charm. He's
not like his fellow 'Frat Pack' members, Vince Vaugh and Jack
Black, whose brains are connected to chaos-fueled improbability
drives. They're able to keep a flick a moving just because you
can't imagine what they're going to say or do next. With Owen
Wilson, after 15 or 20 minutes you've pretty much seen everything
in his bag of tricks. By the time you see a second movie of
his, you can pretty much write his parts in your head. The only
range between him as Lightning McQueen and the serial killer
he played in The Minus Man is the degree in which he's
willing to raise his voice.
But Cars is an ensemble piece, and one of the best
bits of casting is Paul Newman as crusty old Doc, the town's
judge, and Bonnie Hunt as Sally, the Porsche who came to live
in Radiator Springs to escape her previous life as an attorney
living in the fast lane (don't start groaning just yet).
Rounding out the wacky cast are:
(Tow) 'Mater,' the wrecker tow truck. Larry the Cable
Guy takes his dumb, white trash routine up (or down) a notch,
but does get to walk away with all the best lines.
Filmore the stoner VW van. George Carlin reprises his
1987 role as the hippie from Outrageous Fortune, and
even recycles the same joke he got a big laugh from back then:
"Boy, the '60s sure were good to you." Anybody but me remember
Luigi and Guido, the Italian Fiat and forklift. Tony
Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni bring these characters to life as
such archaic Italian stereotypes I expected one of them to start
working an organ grinder with a monkey while the other rolled
barrels at a gorilla.
Ramon the custom-painted Chevy low-rider. Cheech Marin
furthers his mission to insure that the stereotype of the Mexican
vato lives on the minds of the coming generations. Seriously,
is he the only Latino voice actor listed in the phone book?
How Antonio Banderas got to be in Shrek
2 is a mystery.
Flo the sassy Motorama show car. Jennifer Lewis brings
it on home as the most important cast member, the sassy black
woman. True, she barely gets any screen time and says nothing
memorable, but the rules make it very clear that you cannot
have a movie full of ethnic caricatures without including
a sassy black woman. Who needs the headache of the EEOC climbing
up their backs?
Harv the Jewish sports agent. Jeremy Piven does it again!
And again and again. It's not enough that Harv is exactly like
his character Ari from the HBO series Entourage, but
I just saw him last week in a new movie called Keeping Up
With the Steins, and he's the exact same character
Mack the Super-Liner truck. What would a Pixar film
be without the voice of John Ratzenberger? Doesn't matter, because
there isn't one! And if you didn't already know that, well,
there's a protracted bit in the end credits where Ratzenberger
himself elbows you in the ribs repeatedly to remind you. There's
something eerie about it that makes me feel like it was originally
planned as a final goodbye.
In the same way that there was no excuse for the aliens in
Steven Spielberg's War
of the Worlds looking so much like the aliens in Independence
Day some nine years later, there is so excuse for Cars
to so resemble the longest Chevron commercial, ever.
I'm sure Tex Avery's corpse could've submitted more unique designs
for these vehicles.
I suppose it's a minor quibble that the casting wasn't more
creative when the real problem was that the characters themselves
aren't more creative. While they all have their particular quirks
(Ramon airbrushes himself with new flames and gang symbols for
every scene), it's rare that they do anything truly endearing
or even memorable.
This One's For the Kids
No studio more than Pixar has been able to consistently strike
that perfect balance needed for a successful family film that
speaks to adults as much as children. Usually when a movie is
dubbed a "kid's movie" it really means they blew it and the
script was too dumb. After all, why would you purposely make
something that would not appeal to half your potential audience?
Especially the half with all the buying power?
Somehow with Cars the formula got skewed. It comes
off as an adult movie that was written for children, resolving
all its conflicts with naïve solutions. It focuses on the
cynical side of professional sports, freeway construction and
the re-examining of life ambitions, but the happy ending it
demands is to restore the town of Radiator Springs to its glory
days of the fabulous '50s — a time of no interstate bypass,
booming business, jukeboxes and segregated drinking fountains.
Okay, I'm not 100% about that last part, but come on. With such
an anti-progress message what do you think the next logical
progression of this story would've been?