Tuesday 26 July 2011

On Cars, and Human Frailty

I finally saw Cars last night.  Not the recently-released sequel, but the original from five years ago.  What with my noted fondness for Pixar Animation Studios, it may seem odd that it's taken me half a decade to get round to watching one of their films.  I would agree.  But then, it's Cars.  By popular concensus, it was until a few weeks ago the weakest of the studio's 11 feature films - just look at the scores on Rotten Tomatoes, where it came in with just 74%, which would be respectable enough for most studios but is almost a disgrace compared to the 90%-plus earned by every other Pixar film up to last year.

I saw about two-thirds of the film on DVD when it was playing in the background in a house in India back in early 2007, where I was supposed to be helping to sort out the contents of a largeish cupboard.  The whole cupboard was one huge festering pile of clutter, I didn't have the faintest idea where any of the stuff was meant to be going, and of course it didn't help having a previously-unseen Pixar film distracting me.  All in all a horribly embarrassing experience.  And I still didn't see the film properly.

I'm never going back to India.  Ever.  Although I should point out that this decision has got more to do with the night spent vomiting my guts out in a hotel bathroom and being pretty sure I was dying, and with an incident involving unidentified keys, than it has to do with residual cupboard-sorting issues.

Anyway, Cars turned up on BBC iPlayer over the weekend, and last night I sat down and watched it, finally filling the long-standing hole in my experience of things Pixar.

It was alright, I guess.

For Pixar, that's a damning indictment.  Everything from Toy Story (1995) to The Incredibles (2004) and from Ratatouille (2007) to Toy Story 3 (2010) was excellent, or at least oddball and intriguing enough to merit repeat viewings, if not both.  I'm not alone in having come to expect excellence from John Lassetter and his colleagues, and I'm not alone in feeling let down by a film which, to be honest, would have been considered serviceable enough coming from anyone except them.  To be honest, Cars' meh-ness is compounded into disappointment only by the fact that it was sandwiched between two Oscar-winning Brad Bird-helmed pieces of absolute genius made at the same studio.

But disappointing it was.  Not that there was anything particularly wrong with it, mind you, just that it lacked a certain spark that its stablemates had.  It may have been just as visually appealing as anything else Pixar have done, but the characters and story don't grab the mind or the heart.  Sure, Lightning McQueen could beat WALL-E in a drag race any day, but the little trash-compacting robot was by far the better character (maybe because he talked so much less?) and had by far the better film.

And then, there came the sequel.  When I first heard that they were making Cars 2, my gut reaction was 'Why?'

I still don't know why.  And judging by the critical reaction (a mere 37% on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator as of today), nobody else is too sure why either - unless the dirty rumour about merchandising is true.  Cars sold a lot of merchandise, I'm told.  Did they really make a sequel just to sell more toys?  I hope not.  That's a miserable stunt usually pulled by hack filmmakers, and we all thought that was beneath the master craftsmen at Pixar.

Which leads me to the theme of human frailty.  In particular, the fact that we should be very careful about how much we hero-worship our favourite artists, musicians, sport stars etc.  There everybody was, for fifteen glorious years, absolutely convinced that Pixar were some sort of computer-animation demigods... and then Cars 2 happened, and it turned out they were only human after all.  They may be great (and they may well get their form back), but they've got the same blood in their veins as the rest of us, and with it the same weaknesses.

Amy Winehouse is dead.  I only know because BBC News ran a piece about it yesterday.  The usual dead-pop-star routine - hordes of grieving fans laying floral tributes, lots of glowing words about the departed, and somewhere in the background the unsavoury but all-too-familiar suggestion of an overdose.  Frankly, I don't really care.  But judging by the images of crowds outside her home, there are plenty who do, some of them seemingly to the point of obsession.  Another case of setting too much store by a favourite human icon?  A different case to my own, perhaps, but stemming from the same rootstock.

The first trailer has been released for Pixar's next film, Brave, due out next year.  Most of it looks really good - its grim, rugged production design a polar opposite to the neon gloss of the Cars franchise - but there's one huge, glaring flaw: the main character's face looks terrible.  Seriously.  Look this picture in the eye and tell me there isn't something wrong with it.  I can't put a finger on the problem, but that face just doesn't ring true.  The design is stylised, but it's still almost uncanny-valley territory, which is an achievement in itself.  And not a good omen for Pixar.  Please, I'm begging you, Lassetter, CHANGE THE FACE, NOW, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE.  Peter Jackson had Gollum's face redesigned just 8 months out from the relase of The Two Towers.  You've got 13 months before Brave releases.  You've got time to save it.  Please please please PLEASE change that face.


- The Colclough

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