At The Picture Show
The long and winding road...
'Cars' swerves between hits and misses, delivering an uneven mixture of fun, heart and missed
Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios
Director: John Lasseter
Screenplay: John Lasseter, Dan Fogelman, Don Lake, Phil Loren, Kiel Murray, Dan Gerson and
Robert L. Baird
Starring the voices of: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman,
Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton and Richard Petty
Rated G / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Opened June 9, 2006
(out of four)
ADJUSTED FAMILY RATING (AFR):
It's times like these that make the star-rating system an unfortunate handicap. Here we
have a movie in Cars which is brightly and brilliantly animated, which earnestly wants to be
loved, and which will delight the young audiences for which it is aimed. And yet it also pales in
comparison to the rest of Pixar's canon. I cannot in good consciousness give it a full
recommendation because of a dearth of interesting characters and a storyline that is probably too
trite for its own good.
That said, I also cannot dismiss it as a "failure." It works very well in fits and starts, and it
is imbedded with the kind of patented Pixar charm that makes it all somewhat enjoyable, if
underwhelming. So here's what we're left with: My personal rating of two-and-a-half stars, and
an adjusted rating of three for children and family audiences, for whom it certainly deserves a
recommendation. It's a cheap compromise, I know.
Pixar has gained a reputation, deservedly so, of providing not
just animated entertainment, but rich and fully-realized stories that appeal as much to adults as
children. Unfortunately, Cars falls short of its studio's reputation. Take something like The
Incredibles, for example. Now that was a movie. From start to finish, something magical was
going on. The animation wasn't just great - it had personality. The story wasn't just good fun - it
was about as funny and intelligent and exciting as any script to come around in years. The
characters were completely inhabited. The film was practically bursting at the seams with
creative energy; it was so full of life it simply puts Cars to shame.
Except for the sophisticated animation, much of Cars comes across as one of those cheap
videos parents pick up at Wal-Mart for five bucks and plop their kids in front of while they're
busy making dinner or balancing the checkbook. The animation certainly elevates it to a different
level, and scattered moments here and there do the same - but too often, it's run-of-the-mill
schmaltzy kid stuff. And that's not all bad - it's just a little disappointing, especially coming
from the studio famous not only for The Incredibles, but both Toy Story movies, among others.
With Cars, that special element seems to be missing.
It's possible, even probable, that director John Lasseter and
his team of approximately 244 screenwriters (I lost count around No. 82) could have overcome
some of the script's shortcomings, if only the characters brought a bit more to the table. That's
another Pixar staple; just look at Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo - the characters made the
movies. In Cars, we're stuck with a hotshot, lipstick-red racecar named Lightning McQueen
(voiced by Owen Wilson) whose arrogance has gotten the best of him at just the wrong time - as
he's about to race for the all-important Piston Cup. (Think Winston Cup or Nextel Cup, only
without the product placement.)
But on the way to California for the big race, he gets lost and eventually impounded in
Radiator Springs, a small town out in the middle of nowhere. During his extended stay in the
town that he, of course, originally hates but slowly grows to love, we are supposed to care as he
meets the likes of the sexy Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), the friendly redneck tow truck
Tow-Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the town judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and the, um,
hippie stoner, Filmore (George Carlin, legendary for his family-friendly material).
But something just doesn't click. There is a romance between
Lightning and Sally, but one unfortunately inhabited by two flat-out boring characters. I can't
think of a single distinctive personality trait that Sally possesses, and as for Lighting, the movie's
hero...well, I know he's supposed to play the Straight Man, but he's not any more interesting than
the same version of that character we've seen in countless live-action movies. And Wilson's
voice work, while adequate, can't make up for that.
Tow-Mater is the comic relief and, in many ways, the heart of the story - and while he
has plenty of good lines, he's also just your typical country bumpkin stock character, buck teeth
But I'm being too negative. I feel guilty. There is one area where the filmmakers get it
completely right, where the movie as a whole nearly won me over. What Cars delivers is a
poignant sense of nostalgia as the story develops. We learn about Radiator Springs, about how it
used to be an important town that travelers and tourists would always frequent on their long
drives out west. But now, as the decades have gone past and interstates have taken over, the town
is literally off the map. None of the businesses have had paying customers in years. The way the
film develops this aspect is vintage Pixar - it provides the story with a soul that it was otherwise
Another plus is the use of Doc Hudson. Unbeknownst to the
other townsfolk, the old fogey used to be a stud racecar himself, and even has a few Piston Cups
gathering dust in his garage. Paul Newman is a perfect fit, helping to create the most lifelike
1951 Hudson Hornet ever captured on film. Newman is so successful at delivering the life
lessons and wise-old-man advice because he sounds just like your grandfather. You just want to
jump up and sit on his knee and listen to him all day - if only old cars had knees.
But the highlights that Doc Hudson provides only underscore the weaknesses of the rest
of the film. Cars, simply, is a mixed bag, and certainly the weakest of the Pixar library. While its
technical achievements can't be doubted, it's the rest of the package that is missing a few pieces.
That said, there's still some fun to be had here - if only it didn't have such lofty expectations to
live up to.
Read more by Chris Bellamy