Thursday, 8 June 2006


Pixar's first utterly bland animation?

Watching a Pixar animation is an true cinematic experience. Since 1995, I have always looked forward to several things: the wordless short cartoon that precedes the feature animation, cameo appearances of characters and objects from previous Pixar animations, spotting the recurring voice actor John Ratzenberger, and the out-takes and extra clips at the end credits. Spotting the familiar is all great fun, especially when each Pixar movie is radically different from the previous one (except Toy Story 2, the only sequel from this animation studio).

One Man Band

In the tradition of Pixar’s short cartoon openers, One Man Band is a showcase of technical CGI wizardry married to a simple and comic ‘problem story’. This time round, two street performers (Bass and Treble) go through great lengths to impress a girl, who may tip one of them with her single coin. Both performers come up with more and more over-the-top acts, until the girl surprises them with a virtuoso performance on her own, with just one instrument. It’s a little unfortunate that last year, none of the nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were CGI films. Yes, audiences and Academy voters, numbed by the technological whiz-bang and gadgetry of CGI animation, voted for the virtuosi performances from smaller studios outside Hollywood which have chosen to focus on creating engaging stories, nevermind the low-fi animation techniques. One Man Band had better not be a prophetic allegory for the Disney Pixar vs Dreamworks rivalry and the coming collapse of current CGI animation paradigm.


In a year with as many as 9 CGI cartoon releases, Cars, Pixar’s latest feature film stands head and shoulders over its competitors. For starters, this is the studio’s first ever sports movie. In the world of Cars, automobiles can drive themselves, talk, and come with their own personalities. It’s a little like the world of Toy Story, with the vehicles in the place of the talking toys, and no humans.

Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie in the racing circuit. Talented and on the verge of a title trophy and greatness, the sports car’s ambitions are derailed when an accident leaves him stranded in Radiator Springs, a sleepy town off the historic Route 66 highway near the Grand Canyon. There, the impatient and arrogant rookie will learn some valuable lessons about life from the quirky denizens of the town, lessons that will help him win the next big race.

What does Pixar do right, and much better than many American animation studios? Although Cars is a typical genre film made into a cartoon, it has a competently-written story that doesn’t rely on toilet humour, slapstick comedy, or even pop-cultural references. The story can stand on its own, and measures up well against many live action sports movies. In addition, all the major and minor characters are lovingly designed and unique; weeks after watching this movie, the characters will still stand out from one another in your memory.

There is humour in Cars, but more of a mature, wry, understated kind (aside from one madcap sequence involving the automobile version of cow tipping). Instead of viewing Cars as a cartoon comedy, it makes better sense to think of it as a comic drama like Northern Exposure. The winning point about this animated movie, despite its genre plot, is its small town off Route 66 setting, which allows the movie’s creators to paint a loving and sentimental tribute to the Mother Road.

However, there are a few issues with Cars that make this Pixar’s weakest offering to date (but still, Pixar’s weakest is worth more than any studio’s best). The choice of a genre film is a departure from the Pixar originality that movie audiences have grown to love and expect since 1995. While solidly written according to genre standards, Cars lacks character development and any hint of plot innovation and unpredictability.

Visuals-wise, there is a confusing mix of styles. In some scenes, automobiles look almost photorealistic; in others, like toy cars; and yet in others, caricatures. Different cars are drawn with different levels of details, and when you see in the same frame, all these different styles thrown in together, there is a sense of inconsistency and bewilderment that distracts from the movie unfolding before our eyes.

The landscape of the Grand Canyon was disappointingly rendered. The trees looked like they were shot in stop-motion with surplus plastic models from Aardman Studios. While Finding Nemo and Prince of Egypt showed that 3D animators could create realistic-looking water and waves, Cars proves that dust, gravel and rock still can’t be convincingly rendered in 3D yet, surprisingly. As a result, the Grand Canyon – almost a major character by itself – looks flat and uninspiring, with no sense of atmosphere, and appears more like a cell background – except cell backgrounds deliberately sacrifice verisimilitude for aesthetic effect and atmosphere.

These are minor quibbles, of course, and should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the movie. The screening of Cars is also accompanied with the sneak trailers for Ratatouille, Disney Pixar’s next movie. Judging from the trailer, Pixar’s next film is worth waiting for, and will be even better than Cars – but then, almost every Pixar movie is better than the previous one!

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

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