If anybody can turn out a car-themed movie that’s warm-hearted, funny, and original, the genius crew at Pixar Animation can.
So that’s why I hate to tell that they can’t. Or, at least, they don’t. Cars is the first disappointment from a studio that has had one well-deserved hit after another. Starting out with Toy Story, detouring through Monsters, Inc and Finding Nemo, Pixar took it up a notch with 2004’s The Incredibles. We’ve waited a year and a half for Cars, and would have gladly waited longer if it could have given us something better. But the whole production is already over-cooked. Every predictable element is welded into place and then sprayed with Teflon. The programmed yucks keep on a-coming, but there isn’t much joy.
You already know you’re in trouble when an animated feature is voiced by many, many famous folks, because each one will require a separate moment in the sun. There are dozens of mega-names in Cars, from Paul Newman to Cheech Marin to Richard Petty to Jay Leno to Mario Andretti to George Carlin to the Magliozzi Brothers. When a movie is studded with a sequence of cameos, it start to feel less like a story and more like a variety show. One beaming act follows another across the stage, and the effect is airy and diffuse. This is the enemy of that helpful little movie device known as a plot.
And the plot, such as it is, is nothing to boast about. Picture for a moment the originality of the storyline and characters of Toy Story or The Incredibles. Then try to swallow this: An eager young race car, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is on his way to an important race in California, but gets stranded in the sleepy little town of Radiator Springs. He “gets to know the town’s offbeat characters” (quoting here from the official website). The townspeople “help him realize that there are more important things than trophies, fame, and sponsorship.” He “discovers that life”–no, I won’t tell you, I’ll let it be a surprise.
There’s a hint of an explanation in an interview with director John Lasseter at the webmag Cinematic Happenings Under Development. “I grew up in L.A., my dad was a [Chevrolet] parts manager, so I’ve always loved cars,” Lasseter told Devin Faraci, while seated in a skybox at Loews Motor Speedway in North Carolina. “I came up with this idea [a decade ago] and I became really excited about this in a geeky way. I mean a deeply geeky way. I wanted real model cars, I started coming to this track researching NASCAR, racing, all this stuff.”
But he kept another concern in mind; his wife Nancy had said, “You’ve got to make this movie for me, for your nieces, for everybody who…doesn’t like racing and doesn’t care much for cars.” Aware of that need, he “consciously focused on…the story and the characters.”
And that’s all Lasseter has to say about that. He goes immediately back to talking about his obsession with authenticity, for example, the detailing on the 1951 Hudson Hornet character: “If you know Hudson Hornets, it’s a ’51. All the details are there. It’s even a stock ’51 color. Yes, I’m a geek.”
I wish that geek had been freed to follow his passion, rather than feeling chained to a boulder of responsibility to include girly stuff, like about relationships and learning lessons. There are plenty of terrific characters and moral lessons in the other Pixar films, but they sprang naturally out of the writers’ authentic convictions, and inhabited organic storylines. This is a movie where the excitement is about the look and feel and the very fragrance of cars, and the story is a dispensable formality.
There’s nothing drastically wrong with Cars; there’s nothing to hate. But there’s not much to love, either, and that makes it different from every previous effort from this studio. Here’s hoping the two features currently under production, tantalizingly teasered before Cars (Meet the Robinsons, March 2007; Ratatouille, Summer 2007), recover the magic.