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All Movie Talk

Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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I don't know when a collaboration of artists has produced such a consistently excellent body of work. Even the classic Walt Disney animated features, which dominated the feature-length animation scene from the 1940s all the way to the 1990s, never went seven features in a row as strong as the entire feature filmography of Pixar Animation Studios.

Moreover, Pixar has been squeezing in animated shorts that are every bit as good -- and in the process, cluing us in to the delights we've been missing out on ever since the animated short disappeared for want of commercial value.

Pixar's seventh animated feature, Cars (2006), is perhaps Pixar's weakest film to date, which frankly says more about Pixar and the precedents it has set than it does about Cars. Because Cars is a spectacular achievement. It's delightful, it's colorful, it's funny, it's energetic, and none of that even scratches the surface, for the film's most remarkable achievement is how it does something animation is particularly well-suited for but rarely accomplishes: it introduces us to a new, imaginary world that helps us see our own in a new light.

I found an IMDb review of the film that expresses the film's effect perfectly (it's remarkable that an IMDb review is worth quoting, but I digress): "Sure, the 'slow down and enjoy the scenery' message may seem a little routine, but it's a message I took to heart. Immediately following the movie I was on the Internet looking up information regarding Route 66. I'm now ready for a road trip void of interstates and efforts to beat my best time."

As it did this reviewer, Cars made me feel nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. There's a time and a place for the guts and the glory, but how much do we miss the heart of things when that becomes our exclusive focus? It goes without saying that the racing scenes in Cars are visceral and exciting -- movies are pretty good at action in general these days -- but what's remarkable is how little of it there is, and how much it isn't missed at all during the long stretch in the middle when we do slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery and, you know, actually tell a story.

What I find absolutely hilarious is that these sorts of feelings were evoked by a movie about talking cars! If even a bad movie can make you care about the dreams, the insecurities, and the love life of talking cars, that's a remarkable achievement. But such is the power of animation, and such has been its power all along. Some of the very oldest cartoons revolve around the anthropomorphization of inanimate objects, be they police cars or telephones or musical instruments or whatever else. Inanimate objects are infused with life and usually take on the role animals have in society: horses and dogs and cows and cats, although you aren't always able to make the connection with any specific animal. And sometimes inanimate objects become the main characters in worlds that are all about them, not us. In 1987, we had a movie called, The Brave Little Toaster, which was a hit on video. So why not Cars? It follows a long tradition.

One think I thought Cars did really well is build its world and infuse it with fun little details about how it works. The inhabitants are all modes of transportation -- no humans in sight, and even the insects are really just tiny flying cars -- and that will naturally pose certain logistical problems with the world they live in, which, after all, looks very much like ours. But problems are merely opportunities for creativity, and the solutions they come up with are sometimes a lot of fun. Animated movies in general have been particularly good at this. Shark Tale wasn't that great, but it had its world down brilliantly.

As I said before, however, I think it's possibly Pixar's weakest feature film to date. I cringe when I apply that label, but as I said before, this says more about Pixar than it does about Cars. I mean, what a track record. The two Toy Story movies are outstanding and hilarious and moving. Finding Nemo is dazzling and innovative and exciting. Live-action superhero movies wish they were as good as The Incredibles. And is it possible to grasp how unceasingly creative and cool and fun Monsters, Inc is? A Bug's Life is the reason I say Cars is only "possibly" Pixar's weakest film, but even that one is chock full of great little details and nuances and is, as Cars, ultimately a movie that tells a solid story and evokes our sympathies. I think if A Bug's Life and Cars were Pixar's only movies, we'd still be singing its praises. I would, in any case.

And I think this past year, in which every other animated movie was about wacky animals, it highlights just how much of an accomplishment it is to be consistently innovative and satisfying with animated features. We need some stupid nonsense every once in a while to make us appreciate the better movies we've got.

Incredibly, Pixar has not made one single wacky animal movie. That's about to change. Pixar's next movie is Ratatouille, scheduled for release next year. But I'm optimistic. I think Ratatouille is going to show us all how it's done.

It's highly likely that the one after that will be Toy Story 3. Be thankful Pixar worked out a deal with Disney in the end. Had Pixar left Disney and struck a distribution deal with another studio, which seemed likely for a while, Toy Story 3 would have been produced by Disney's own animation team, for Disney, not Pixar, owned the sequel rights. It saddens me to dread the output of the animation studio that set the bar for about 60 straight years, but there's a reason for the expression about how far the mighty fall. The last Disney animated feature I really loved was Tarzan in 1999 (a film I loved -- I hasten to add -- even apart from my odd affinity for jungle-themed movies that Stephen is fond of needling me over). This was not so very long ago. But the output since then has left a lot to desire.

One day, Pixar will fall from grace. It's inevitable. With any luck, it won't be for another 60 years.

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