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Cars

Pixar's Cars

[rating:2.5]

Director: John Lasseter

Starring: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt

America’s finest animation studio just isn’t firing on all cylinders. “Cars” is the worst movie Pixar has ever made. Now that Disney owns Pixar, though, we can also call it a Disney film and say it’s one of the best Disney films in years.

A tired plot is competently handled, with characters that are hard to relate to because, well, they’re talking cars. This does not make for an ideal moviegoing experience. Also, Owen Wilson “¦ aren’t we all tired of him yet? His annoying self-involved characters work sometimes (Shanghai Noon and its sequel) but are always the same. I’d have expected the Pixar film to push his performance over the top, but instead, we get tepid work from Wilson, which just makes him a bore.

So here’s the story: In a world peopled by cars, auto racing is a big sport, and topping the Piston Cup circuit is rookie racer Lightning McQueen (Wilson). Probably the name is meant to invoke manly movie hero Steve McQueen, but all I can think of is Scarlett O’Hara’s maid, played by Butterfly McQueen. McQueen (the car, not the actress) is an arrogant, shallow Owen Wilson type. Has no friends, cares about nothing but his own success. En route to a showdown race in California, the little egomobile gets lost. Lightning strikes out on his own and ends up jailed in a nowhere town on a backwater stretch of the fabled Route 66.

The town, if you can call it that, is down on its luck and has a plucky population of losers (and one cute girl — you can tell she’s cute, she’s a Porsche). The town needs help. Lightning needs to learn some Valuable Life Lessons, but all he cares about is getting to his race. Can you guess what happens? You CAN? Me too.

Which explains why I fell asleep for a good ten minutes in the middle of the film. (Mitigating Personal Confession: I’d been short on sleep for a few days. But I still blame the predictable plot and stock car characters.)

Another Confession: I have no interest in auto racing or in what can absurdly be called Redneck Culture. The fact that there is a standup comedian of sorts whose professional name is Larry The Cable Guy strikes me as a minor sign of the Apocalypse. That means I’m less inclined to like this story. But then, I don’t care much for tropical fish, and I thought “Finding Nemo” was perfect genius. So take that as you will.

The film would get two stars except for a few mitigating factors: First, while the ending is ludicrously predictable, there’s some fun twists in the execution that make it worthwhile. Second, the design of the film is lovely. It’s a cartoon love letter to Route 66 and the painted desert (Utah’s Monument Valley becomes “Ornament Valley” here). The desert is subtly done. Buttes are in the shape of diagonally rising cars, an homage to the famous Cadillac Ranch photo of half-buried Caddies. The classic 50s look of Route 66 is lovingly handled here, and the camera work for the racing sequences (as boring as real racing, unfortunately) is polished.

If you’re a Pixar addict, you’ll see this film anyway. If you’re not, give it a pass. It’s better than recent animated exercises in “blah” such as the second Ice Age film, but for solid entertainment, you’re better off renting “Toy Story” again.

FIVE DEGREES of SEPARATION
Toy Story — Director John Lasseter really delivers here, with the film that made Pixar a household name. This engaging and masterful film is one of the films I’d show as defense exhibits to an angry god bent on smiting Hollywood.
Finding Nemo — That said, Nemo is a better movie.
Spirited Away — You can’t go wrong with a Miazaki film. I could’ve put “Princess Mononoke” or “Kiko’s Delivery Service” in this slot, too. Miazaki films are a whole different level of storytelling.
Smokey & the Bandit — Another dumb-ass car movie, only this one has Burt Reynolds. Seventies-retro gold, if you’re into that kinda thing.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar — Same movie as “Cars,” only with drag queens instead of drag racers. (Yes, the Pixar cars aren’t actually drag racers, but it’s too nice a joke to pass up. You prefer ” “¦ only with drag queens instead of Lightning McQueen”?). The story is much more engaging in the execution.