From the Archive: Cars

Such a long day today, leaving me nothing pithy to add about the review plucked from my former online home, I’m afraid.

Watching a new Pixar movie in the theater is a little like the same experience with a Disney animated feature in the 1990’s. After nearly going under with the likes of The Black Cauldron the House That Walt Built revived themselves (heavily aided by the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) with superior offerings The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. This contributed to a rash of knockoffs, so the screening of any new Disney release would be preceded by trailers for cartoons driven by dreadful ideas, static animation and even worse ideas. Then the castle logo would show up, the feature would begin and you’d be immediately reminded that the Disney was so much better than these followers. Even when the film wasn’t very good, the Disney animators were plainly more in command of their craft.

So it is with Pixar right now. Driven feverish by the huge grosses for previous Pixar films (and the busily unfunny Shrek franchise), it seems every studio has some computer drones toiling to make cows dance or houses into monsters. The two-minute samplings of these attempts can be charitably described as “eyesore,” and then the Pixar handiwork is projected onscreen and you realize why the folks at the MoMA would feel comfortable opening their doors and walls to them. The new film Cars doesn’t disappoint on that front. The visuals are dazzling, rich with detail, texture, and depth. Neon lights reflected across a car’s hood never looked so lovely.

But this studio’s overall artistic success story has never been about the images alone. There has always been a commitment to story and, above all, to character. That’s precisely where Cars doesn’t deliver.

Set in a world of sentient automobiles, Cars lifts the basic plot of the 1991 Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood and adapts it for its four-wheeled protagonist. Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie racecar on his way to California for a chance at the hallowed Piston Cup trophy. His trek west is interrupted by a road-wrecking accident in the small town of Radiator Springs, where a gruff judge sentences McQueen to repair the damaged pavement. He bonds with the locals, becomes smitten with a Porsche (fetchingly voiced by Bonnie Hunt) and grows as a, uh, car. The familiarity of the story’s trajectory can be forgiven, but the monotony of the characters drastically dulls the impact of the film. While none of the major characters is especially memorable, it may be even more problematic that the side characters becomes more than the joke that defines them. For example, it’s pretty funny to hear George Carlin spin a variation on his old Hippy Dippy Weatherman character to play a VW bus as a 60’s burnout, but beyond that gag there’s nothing much going on there so it gets a little less funny every time the film comes back to him. In comparison, look at how well-developed every plaything in Andy’s room is in the first Pixar feature.

The one time the film builds any emotional momentum is when it explores the way the town of Radiator Springs was devastated by the new Interstate diverting traffic away from their various businesses. Even that is less a product of the dialogue in the script, instead more effectively conveyed with a typically thoughtful Randy Newman song (he also composed the very strong score) and the efficiently elegant visual storytelling cooked up by co-directors John Lasseter and Joe Ranft to accompany it. The is Pixar driving force John Lasseter’s first stop in the director’s chair since 1999’s Toy Story sequel, and you get a sense that this story of disappearing Americana is what he’s really passionate about. That comes through. Too bad it winds up as a relatively small part of the blandest Pixar effort to date.