Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Director: John Lasseter
Screenwriters: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
Starring: Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman
Cars has all the charm of the Pixar canon, though little of the emotional resonance and clear thinking of their best films. It looks astounding, and entertains for a very long 112 minutes (most animated family films top out at 90). It is also the first Pixar film that can most accurately be described as “cute,” as that is the only level at which it is an unqualified success. As a follow-up to The Incredibles, Cars can’t quite cut it.
To the extent that every Pixar project is an exercise in universe creation, Cars goes off the deep end, imagining a world populated entirely by automobiles. No drivers, passengers, or for that matter people: their windshields are eyes, their grills are mouths, and there are no doors to let anyone in. We never learn how they are manufactured (born?) or why; there seems to be romance involved, but no hints about where it leads. The plot involves racing, which appears as a near-exact facsimile of NASCAR, except that the stands are filled entirely with… well, other cars, of course. RVs get their own section.
It takes but a few minutes to get a sense of the story. The protagonist, a hotshot rookie racecar named (?) Lightning McQueen and voiced by Owen Wilson, announces that he’s a “one-man show” and is summarily ditched by his pit crew, who are fed up with his arrogance and showboating. Like many kids’ films before it, we realize, this is to be a tale of Lightning McQueen’s humbling, learning What’s Really Important, finding his True Place.
Despite the sledgehammer approach of the opening minutes, Cars eventually settles into a lovely rhythm with respect to its main themes. I liked that the focus, ultimately, wasn’t on the importance of friends and family or the superiority of small-town values to “life in the fast lane” (though there’s certainly plenty of that) but on the meaninglessness of prestige, the notion that the coveted race trophy is “just an empty cup.” This is finally made literal in one of the film’s best blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gags — and one of its only mean-spirited ones.
The characters are a problem. The supporting cast is a bit too broadly drawn, with the screenplay trying too hard to give everyone his own joke at the expense of personality. The main characters are better written but blandly voiced — Owen Wilson, in particular, can’t carry an animated film, and Bonnie Hunt, whom I love dearly, bored me to tears as the spunky little Porsche. The highlight is Paul Newman, who brings a subdued dignity to his retired racing hero; the nadir is Larry the Cable Guy, about whom the less said, the better.
Cars mostly goes for inoffensive sweetness and often hits the mark. The Pixar team has long had a knack for finding ways to tug at heartstrings that do not seem hackneyed or overtly corny and this is no exception; the film makes good use of flashbacks to say what a lesser film (Over the Hedge) would have tried to shoehorn into the screenplay via dialogue. But nothing really connects, not in the way Monsters, Inc. or Toy Story 2 did. Those films managed to get at something deeper than effective employment of family movie conventions, something universal and profoundly human. Cars, for all its appeal, is strictly surface.
The movie was directed by John Lasseter, who began the revolution with Toy Story in 1995. Why does it feel like such a non-event? The rapturously beautiful animation suggests something vast and unforgettable, but emotionally the movie is content to stay in a small box. It’s good. But it’s disappointing.