It’s strange to think that we’re now in the recent history of Disney and Pixar. Cars was the last production on Pixar’s original contract; negotiations were tense, but ultimately resulted in Disney buying the studio and merging it with its own. In 2007, Disney was beginning to come out of its nadir with Meet The Robinsons, an overlooked film that feels like it was dismissed by association. Pixar released Ratatouille just three months later, dashing any hopes for recognition Disney’s cartoon might have made. The three films are a little strange, reflecting two animation studios struggling to reconcile their relationship with each other and pushing the borders of subject matter for kids’ movies in general.
This is one weird movie. Cars is set in a universe of anthropomorphic vehicles where busses, trains, ships and planes are living beings. This raises all kinds of questions that the movie nimbly dodges; it just asks you not to think about the rules too hard and have a good time. On the other hand, there are a lot of jokes and set pieces that practically beg further explanation, like how vehicles can fill the role of people AND animals at the same time. Trying to think through the ramifications of the tractor-tipping scene is really difficult.
So, superstar-racer Lightning McQueen is a young up-and-comer on the international racing circuit. His flashy driving (running?) and catch-phrase has captured the imagination of the race-car world and earned him a shot at the season’s championship with two other cars, the veteran Strip Weathers and eternal second-place finisher Chick Hicks. In order to get there in time, Lightning orders his friend (and big-rig pack mule) Mac to drive all night; this ends in disaster, separating the two and stranding McQueen in the dying Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Lightning has to learn how to slow down long enough to make things right while also winning the big race. Can he do it?
Despite the fact that this movie is straight-up baffling, it has a charm that wears better than I remember it before. The plot is pretty thin but well-told, and Cars is populated with a garage-full of characters that you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with. The production team went out of their way to stock the movie with a wide variety of car models, from super-fast coupes to puttery, sagging Volkswagens. What’s really interesting is how the animators actually imbue each vehicle with a distinct personality that feels organic to their form; you can tell what kind of “people” these are on sight, and the way they move (drive?) reveals a lot about how they see the world and interact with it.
Cars somehow managed to get all kinds of people for their voice cast; Owen Wilson serves as the primadonna Lightning McQueen, with Larry the Cable Guy as his sidekick (and breakout star) Mater. Paul Newman (in his last dramatic role), Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Michael Keaton and Jeremy Piven all lend their talents to the movie as well. Race car drivers and car aficionados even make cameos! It’s strange, in hindsight, that so much talent threw in with this movie. By then, the Pixar brand was golden, so I guess everyone wanted to be part of it.
It was Pixar’s lowest-reviewed film at that point, but critics still liked it; it opened well, made a ton of money at the box office and absolutely slayed with merchandise. To this day, the reputation of Cars is something of a debate with Disney fans. Some people dismiss it as juvenile fluff, while others see it as an underappreciated, or at least misunderstood, film.
I’m somewhere in between the two. It’s not as shallow or empty as its detractors make it out to be, but next to other Pixar films it’s dwarfed by its simple story and straight-forward performances. The animation feats are largely hidden, but can we just talk about how hard it is to build an entire world around anthropomorphic cars? And also, how hard it is to take CARS — inanimate objects that are gigantic and heavy — and make them move, speak and have their own body language in a way we could recognize? It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about that alone; the character design is an even bigger feat than the undersea denizens of Finding Nemo.
All of that is in service to a movie that I’m not sure merits that much work. However, considering the scads of money Pixar has made off the movie and its related merchandise, I’m sure the animation studio would disagree.
Meet The Robinsons (2007)
For Disney, getting it right with computer animation was a bit of a process. With Dinosaur, the lush environments were blown up at the end of Act 1 and replaced with drab, beige backgrounds for the characters to trudge through. In Chicken Little, all of their creative energy went to designing the title character and everything else (including plot, dialogue and supporting character design) was an afterthought. With 2007’s Meet The Robinsons, though, they get it mostly right — the animation is sunny and appealing, the plot carries a great message with sure-footed ambition, and most of the characters are people you like spending the time with.
Lewis is a precocious and smart 90s child right out of central casting in a situation you almost never see in children’s movies. He has the messy blond hair, the oversized geek glasses, and the bright smile — but he also lives in an orphanage with a pale, strange kid who loves to play baseball even though he’s terrible at it. Lewis and “Goob” are old hands; between Lewis’ inventions and Goob’s general oddity, they’re having a hard time getting placed in a home. This causes something of a personal crisis for him, and so his latest invention is a memory scanner that he hopes will unlock the only clue to her identity — his infant memories. At the school science fair, a kid claiming to be a cop from the future and a long, lanky man in a bowler hat both try to steal Lewis’ invention and the chase takes them all the way through traveling in time.
It’s exceedingly rare to see a children’s movie tackle the idea of adoption as an important aspect of its plot — at least in the relatively grounded way it comes across here. As an adopted child myself, I really appreciated that aspect of it; the ultimate lesson taken from the film offers a reason for hope in difficult circumstances, and it’s a hell of a lot fun getting there.
That’s because the plot is a bit twistier than most you’ll find in Disney movies of the era. Adding the time travel element will complicate any story, but it’s well-served in Meet The Robinsons; even if you guess a couple of the surprises along the way, chances are good that there are more you won’t see coming. Even though Lewis does a lot of unwise things that complicate the plot, it’s easy to give him a pass — he’s a 12-year-old boy who’s just learned time travel is a reality, and that’s not something one just plays safe. The villain, Bowler Hat Guy, is the real star of the movie; he is a straight-up vaudeville villain, all waxed moustache and overwrought theatricality. He is so deeply weird and revels in it so much that you almost root for him. Every scene with him somehow made me like him that much more, which is a feat in and of itself.
The titular Robinson family doesn’t come off quite as well. They’re a huge and eccentric clan, full of inventors and free spirits, but the whimsy of their lives comes off a little strained. We don’t spend as much time with them as we do with Lewis, his “future-cop” friend Wilbur, or Bowler Hat Guy, so they’re painted with broad strokes that still feel too flat to be engaging.
Once all the cards are on the table, though, the movie wraps up with a surprisingly effective resolution that’s incredibly sweet. Lewis learns how to look for validation within himself, and that self-confidence promises to propel him into a great life. He also learns how to benefit from his mistakes, improving on each attempt until he eventually succeeds in what he’s trying to do. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for Disney’s CG animation; they learned from Dinosaur and Chicken Little to get to a place that mostly works. The mistakes they made here are simply data points for them to build on with their next feature.
Ratatouille was the third film written and directed by the amazing Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Pixar’s 8th studio film — its first after being bought by Walt Disney. Set in the romanticized and insular world of Parisian high-cuisine, it pulls together so many disparate elements to create something truly unique. Like every Pixar film that came before it, the animators set out to crack an enormous task just to make the film work; this time, it was figuring out how to animate food in a believable and appetizing way. The creation of Ratatouille, like many of the incredible dishes featured within it, required a small army of specialists at the top of their game to produce an experience that would be truly memorable despite being part of one of the most common activities we partake in, watching movies.
Remy is a rat who is a true artist when it comes to food. He has an incredible nose that allows him to detect subtle spices, whether food has rotted, or if something has been treated with rat poison. Unlike the other rodents in his clan, he chooses to walk on two feet instead of four so he can “taste the food, not everywhere he’s been”. And his mind creates connections that produce a symphony of flavors that most wouldn’t even think possible. His inspiration is celebrated Paris chef Auguste Gusteau, who believed that anyone can cook, no matter what. When the food critic Anton Ego eviscerated Gusteau’s restaurant in a review, it lost a star — and the death of its head chef knocked off another star after that. Since then, the establishment has been trying to stay afloat on the Gusteau name.
Coming in to this situation is a kid named Alfredo Linguini, hoping to get a job in Gusteau’s kitchen — he’s signed on as a trash boy. Remy and Linguini become unlikely friends and partners after the rat salvages a pot of soup and Linguini gets the credit for it. They discover an even more unlikely way to keep the charade going; Remy hides under Linguini’s chef’s hat and controls him like a giant marionette by pulling his hair. As the restaurant’s stock rises and Linguini is subjected to increasing pressure to perform, both rat and man must find a way to achieve success in a way that’s true to themselves.
Brad’s specialty is creating characters who somehow remain underdogs while still being uncommonly excellent. Remy is no exception; he can be pretentious and demanding, but his passion and love of cooking is evident in everything he does. Linguini is a kid in over his head, but with a good heart and a strong moral compass. The kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant is stocked with a wonderful set of supporting characters, from Colette Tatou (the rotisseur and love interest) to Horst, the German sous chef. The space itself feels like another character, full of life and danger, depending on whether you’re seeing it from Remy’s or Linguini’s point of view. Even mean old Anton Ego, the dour critic who relishes the destruction of restaurants, is charismatic in his own terrifying way.
There are so many things in this movie that impress me regarding its animation. The textures of the rats, the people, the clothes and the food are incredibly well-rendered, giving the world a reality and weight that really immerses you in it. The camera navigates the same scenes from the POV of both protagonists, drastically changing the feel of each; the contrast helps us to understand the wide gulf that exists between the lives of Remy and Linguini in a way that feels remarkably organic. The writing is incredibly smart and earnest, but also allows room for physical comedy; Linguini under the control of Remy is a wonderful thing to behold.
Of course, the thing that makes Pixar’s best movies so special is the story. Remy’s dream forces him to break down a barrier that no one on either side wants to be pulled down; he not only has to fight personal and physical limitations, but deeply-entrenched social ones as well. It’s this willingness to forsake everything he’s ever known to pursue his passion that makes us care about him. He’s not blind to the sacrifice and work it will take to do what he loves, and he’s not afraid of it. He plunges ahead.
The film ends with a wonderful epilogue that feels miraculous yet ordinary. On one small block within the middle of Paris, there is a restaurant that stands as a testament to what is possible with enough dedication and willpower. It is modest, perhaps, but everything it is has been earned through hard work and perseverance. Those who appreciate it know it’s much more than just a place to eat — it’s a small example of the way the world could be, the way it should be. It’s a wondrous note to end on, because it tells us that while following our passions may make our own lives better, it undoubtedly makes the entire world better as well.