Sunday, November 1, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 2: Collaboration and Creativity, Part II

Motor Running In A New Direction 

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, Bob Iger, and John Lasseter
Toy Story director John Lasseter returned to the director’s chair with Cars in 2006, the same year he was made Chief Creative Officer of both the Pixar and Walt Disney animation studios. Bob Iger replaced Michael Eisner as the latter company’s CEO, while then-Pixar CEO Steve Jobs became the company’s largest shareholder and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull was appointed President of both studios. 

Cars was to be Pixar’s last film under their initial contract with Disney. But thanks to a new acquisition deal in 2006, it represented the beginning of a new relationship between both studios (and the beginning of a new direction for the Mouse House, for that matter. Likewise, Pixar would go in a different direction with new ideas for film projects that were outside their perceived norm). 

Cars echoes back to Lasseter’s first short film, “Luxo, Jr.” (1986), in terms of bringing inanimate objects to life. He was also inspired by his love of automobiles growing up (his father was a car-parts manager), and by a cross-country road trip he took with his wife Nancy and five sons for a summer following the success of Toy Story 2 (1999). In addition, Nancy encouraged him to make this film for both car/racing fans and for non-fans as well. The result is a dazzling world of color, speed, humor, and 50s nostalgia, and Lasseter’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, world, and characters really shows. The animation is first-rate (the opening sequence, for instance, puts you right into the action of the race track). The filmmakers balance within the physics of how automobiles work--not to mention the chrome coatings on each vehicle, as well as the “ray tracing” that allows them to reflect their surroundings--while subtly incorporating cartoony aspects such as the use of windshields for eyes and tires for limbs. It’s also interesting that tractors in this world resemble cows while Volkswagen Beetles resemble insects.

It’s easy to see why kids love this movie and its characters. (They’re talking cars, for goodness sakes.) For adults, however, these characters could be viewed as intriguing caricatures of real people. Paul Newman’s features, for instance, were incorporated into the character of Doc Hudson (whom he voiced). Lightning McQueen, meanwhile, was reportedly inspired by characteristics of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Kid Rock, to illustrate likability and cockiness. The voice cast is one of the most diverse of any animated feature film—Wilson, Newman, Larry the Cable Guy (Mater the rusty tow truck), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Cheech Marin (Ramone the spray-painting Impala), Tony Shaloub (Luigi the tire store-owning Fiat), George Carlin (Fillmore the VW bus), Michael Keaton (Chick Hicks the runner-up racer), and John Ratzenberger (Mack the semi-truck), to name a few. There are even cameos from car caricatures of Jay Leno and Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all famous people. 

Lightning McQueen (center), racing against Chick Hicks (left) and "The King" (right)
Cars not only speaks of life being about the journey and not the finish line and success, but also of bringing life back to a community that time and the world had long forgotten (Route 66). Hotshot racer Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is on his way to California for the Piston Cup championship after an unprecedented three-way tie between himself and two other racers. On the way, he gets lost and ends up on Route 66, and in the town of Radiator Springs. Because of his inadvertent road damage, he is sentenced to community service by fixing the road before he can leave for California. 

Like Tom Cruise in Rain Man, McQueen is challenged and eventually inspired by the other characters in this small community. He learns that there are far more important things in life than what “winning the race” means, including the fact that trust within friendships (such as his new friendship with tow truck Mater) is not to be taken lightly. He even gets a glimpse of what it’s like when the world leaves others (such as Doc Hudson) high and dry.

Residents of Radiator Springs on Route 66
This film arguably recalls a particular element from Field of Dreams. The scene where Porsche car Sally (who believes Radiator Springs is “a town worth fixing”) explains her backstory to McQueen, where she once had a successful-but-unhappy life and eventually ended up in Radiator Springs, represents leaving a former life behind for something better. In Field of Dreams, the character of “Doc” Graham explains that he left the Major Leagues as a young man and returned to his hometown to be a doctor, living there for the remainder of his life and making a difference in his community. Coincidentally, Cars would turn out to be Paul Newman’s last film role as the voice of Doc Hudson (Newman died in 2008 from lung cancer), just as Dreams (1989) would be Burt Lancaster’s last film role, as “Doc” Graham, before the actor's death in 1993. Newman’s last film credit, however, was reprising Doc Hudson in the Cars short “Mater and the Ghostlight” (2006). 

Again, this kind of film can appeal to kids and adults, including, but not limited to, country folk, racing fans, cars fans, and baby boomers. The film does suffer from a few overdone elements of commercialism and fame. But maybe that’s the point in contrast to the simpler small-town lifestyles represented in Radiator Springs.

Doc Hudson and Lightning McQueen
Trivial facts
- This film commemorated the twentieth anniversary of Pixar, founded in 1986. 
- There are many references to Toy Story in this film: the Lightyear blimp (referencing Buzz Lightyear), the “Dinoco” sponsor (the same name of the gas station that Woody and Buzz got lost at), and McQueen’s car number 95 (Toy Story was released in 1995). The “Cozy Cone” hotel in Radiator Springs could be a possible homage to a scene in Toy Story 2, where Buzz and the gang walked across a busy street under orange cones. 
- Lightning McQueen was named after Pixar animator Glenn McQueen, who died of a heart attack in 2002. The film itself is dedicated to co-director Joe Ranft, who tragically died in 2005 (less than a year before the film’s release). 
- There’s a reference to Shakopee, Minnesota, and “Crazy Days” in the scene where the minivans are driving through Radiator Springs. 
- The soundtrack includes artists like Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley, James Taylor (the bittersweet “Our Town”), Rascal Flatts and John Mayer (new renditions of “Life Is A Highway” and “Route 66,” respectfully). 
- The scenes during the credits would be a first for the studio, which they wouldn’t do again until Toy Story 3 (2010). For added fun, car versions of characters from Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and a bug’s life appear, with their respective voice actors. 

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