Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2006

The long and winding road...

'Cars' swerves between hits and misses, delivering an uneven mixture of fun, heart and missed opportunity

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)

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 and all.

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 lacking.

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

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