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Cars

Second-Tier Pixar Effort Is Still Better Than Most

Directed by John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug's Life) and written by a team of writers too numerous to list here, Cars is the latest offering from Pixar Animation Studios, their first as a Disney subsidiary (the film was in production well before last year’s deal to make Pixar a part of the Disney conglomerate was finalized). Switching from talking toys (Toy Story 1 and 2), to insects (A Bug’s Life), imaginary monsters (Monsters, Inc.), talking fish (Finding Nemo), and a superhero family (The Incredibles), Pixar has put together an impressive track record, but can do they it again with self-aware, driverless cars? Short answer: yes, but with reservations.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hotshot stock car aiming to win the Piston Cub (an end-of-the-year award for most points), is selfish, self-centered, short on humility, and difficult to work with or for (he’s fired several pit chiefs). McQueen flashes and dashes past his main competitors, the King (Richard Petty), the longtime, about-to-retire champion, and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), the longtime runner-up hoping to take the points title and the Piston Cup. The race ends inconclusively, forcing a three-way, winner-take-all follow-up in California.

Hoping to get to California first to bask in the media attention and court a potential sponsor, McQueen convinces his driver, Mack (John Ratzenberger), a 1985 Mack SuperLiner, to drive all night. McQueen and Mack are separated on the main highway, leaving McQueen in a small town off Route 66, Radiator Springs. McQueen wants to get back on the road to California, but there’s a hitch: his antics have left a huge gash in the road. Arrested by the Sheriff (Michael Wallis), a 1949 Mercury Police Cruiser, and sentenced by the town judge/mechanic, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a 1951 Hudson Hornet, to community service, McQueen risks missing the race in California.

Radiator Springs has an overabundance of eccentrics, including Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), a rusty old tow truck, Ramone (Cheech Marin), a souped up1959 Impala who runs a paint and body shop, Flo (Jenifer Lewis), the gas station owner, the Sarge (Paul Dooley), a 1942 Willys Army jeep turned army surplus store owner, Filmore (George Carlin), an ex-hippie VW bus, circa 1960, Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), a 1959 Fiat 500 car and owner of the local tire store, Guido (Guido Quaroni), Luigi’s assistant, Lizzie (Katherine Helmond), the town’s oldest resident (she’s a Model-T), and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a super sleek 1992 Porsche who runs the local motel.

If the accented voices and car styles are any indication, Radiator Springs is a multi-ethnic dreamland, where community and friendship takes precedence over physical differences and identity politics (note that every car is a different make and model). It's an admirable if still unrealized message. Look more closely, though, and you’ll realize the town of Radiator Springs is meant to be a paean to small town life and values (in this case, 50s Americana during Route 66’s heyday). But will Cars play as well in the coastal states as it's likely to play in the inland states? While cultures vary regionally, NASCAR has steadily moved from a purely Southern sport to a nationally televised one, with fans in all fifty states, so it’s likely Cars will also appeal to viewers in blue and red states.

Lasseter and his writers also made sure to make all the hairpin turns and pit stops along "life lesson" road. The life lessons, getting over yourself, learning to trust, putting friendship and community first, working as a team, valuing effort over awards or fame, and respecting/appreciating elders, are innocuously inoffensive. They’re also the standard lessons found in just about any family-oriented film these days. To be fair, it makes (monetary) sense for Pixar to play it safe, but it also suggests an unwillingness to take any risks, subject matter wise.

As expected, the computer animation is top-notch, from the deep, near photorealistic, textured backgrounds to the electrifying racing scenes that open and close Cars. On the negative side, Cars suffers from an overlong running time, heavy-handed sentimentality, hit-or-miss repetitive jokes or gags, an overly familiar storyline borrowed from the movie Doc Hollywood and, in one of the first "bad" decisions made by Lasseter and his animators, bland, inexpressive character designs. The end result suggests that Pixar’s storytellers and animators are in need of fresh ideas.

While Cars' box office success is all but guaranteed, it's difficult to shake the sense that Pixar has begun the inevitable slide toward mediocrity. Next stop, Toy Story 3. At least Brad Bird, the writer/director behind The Incredibles and Iron Giant, is working on a new animated film for Pixar.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars