Animated 'Cars' lacks drive

The streak is over.

Since the debut of "Toy Story" in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios has been responsible for one of the greatest streaks in motion picture history.

"Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" are indisputable classics. Charming, inventive, emotionally rich and endlessly enthralling, these films' creative achievements are equaled only by their box-office success.

So why then does "Cars" offer such a bland experience?

All the Pixar essentials appear to be there. "Cars" features dazzling visuals and witty production design - which do as much as can be hoped for in bringing to life the movement of NASCAR racing. It's got voice work that relies on talent more than star power. It displays a clear idea of the alternate world it seeks to create.

But the results are just so ... mechanical.

The answer seems to lie in the subject matter. Apparently, anthropomorphized machines are a whole lot less fun than anthropomorphized fish, insects, toys or monsters.

Remember last year's "Robots"? Yeah, me neither.

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Disney/Pixar Image

Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman), left, dispenses some racing tips to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) in the animated adventure "Cars."

Like the Tin Woodsman of Oz, that was another flick with a sleek metallic look and no heart.

In "Cars," Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a cocky red speedster hoping to be the first rookie to win the coveted Piston Cup.

En route to the big race he unwittingly makes a mess out of a sleepy town called Radiator Springs. In order to pay for his crimes, judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) sentences him to community service. Although at first McQueen can't wait to escape this "hillbilly hell" and get back to a high-octane lifestyle of press adulation and product endorsements, he begins to bond with the inhabitants of the town who teach him a thing or two about humility and teamwork.

Movie

Cars **

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Given Pixar's track record, it hard to believe the animation studio's latest is so bland. Apparently, anthropomorphized machines are a whole lot less fun than anthropomorphized fish, insects, toys or monsters. "Cars" features dazzling visuals that bring to life the motion of NASCAR racing. But the storytelling is just so ... mechanical.

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Make no mistake, "Cars" looks terrific. The vehicles themselves (which were reportedly narrowed down from 43,000 sketches) are as spirited as can be expected from objects whose eyes are windshields and mouths are bumpers/grills.

But the really impressive stuff involves the backgrounds. Radiator Springs sits on Route 66 (which was the film's working title), and the setting allows the animators to beautifully showcase the glorious mesas and deserts of the Southwestern United States. There are moments during the nearly two-hour effort that are shocking in their ability to simulate reality, as during a carefree joy ride McQueen takes with the town's attorney (Bonnie Hunt).

The film's most resonant moment comes during a flashback montage that finds a bustling Radiator Springs turned into a near ghost town after Interstate 40 is built. It's reminiscent of that memorably sad flashback in "Toy Story 2" that shows Jessie the Cowgirl abandoned by an owner who has outgrown her.

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Pixar/Disney Image

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), left, gets advice from his pal Mack (John Ratzenberger) in the animated adventure "Cars."

But the rest of the montages - and there are many - are just eye candy. And the rest of the story is uncharacteristically predictable, which is one aspect that has never plagued a Pixar project before.

Filmmaker John Lasseter, who directed "A Bug's Life" and both "Toy Story" productions, thinks that the NASCAR in-jokes and quirky peripheral details (such as jet trails in the sky being tire marks) can compensate for the lack of a compelling plot. There just doesn't seem to be that much at stake here, other than a selfish character getting a dose of relationship reality. Compare that with the life-or-death family struggles in "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo," and it's no wonder "Cars" often stalls.

The movie nearly pulls it together during the end credits, when a cast member takes note of his past voice work on other Pixar pictures. The scene is riotously funny, yet it also reminds me how those previous movies were first-place efforts and "Cars" belongs near the back of the pack.

Comments

bthom37 14 years, 2 months ago

"The answer seems to lie in the subject matter. Apparently, anthropomorphized machines are a whole lot less fun than anthropomorphized fish, insects, toys or monsters."

I think this is exactly the problem. When I first saw the ads for this movie, I thought to myself 'the secret lives of cars? Who wants to see that?'. I love Pixar, and they've done great work, but for something to really resonate as an anthromorphific character, it needs to be something people can easily anthropormophize. Who hasn't played with their toy soldiers and imagined them talking? Who hasn't imagined their fish talking?

Who on Earth imagines their car talking?

neo_star 14 years, 2 months ago

okay Niccum, try telling all the kids in the movie theater that this story has a bad plot and see how may eight year olds get up and leave. I saw this on opening day and it's a hit. The kids loved it and that means the adults will get to along for the ride (no pun intended). Cars II may have a better plot but Pixar will pocket millions on #1. I love the movie business.

bthom37 14 years, 2 months ago

Ah, but a big part of the success of the earlier Pixar movies was the fact that they appealed to adults, as well. I have 0 children, yet I've seen all their earlier offerings (starting with Toy Story when I was ~17). Cars seems lacking based on previews and reviews. As I said, the main characters aren't very empathetic.

And I don't think the critic's job is to guess whether or not something will be a hit. Even Niccum, who in general seems to love movies a little too much.

Gabe Hoffman 14 years, 2 months ago

You know, i still have yet to see a good review from anyone on here of any movie. Just beacuse you get a job at the ljworld doesn't mean that you are all the sudden the diffinitive reasource on all things good and bad.

If i remember correctly, 'Crash' was a bomb to him to. Funny, the people at the Oscar commity didn't thinks so.

bthom37 14 years, 2 months ago

Really jester? I always thought Niccum in particular was a little too easy to satisfy moviewise. I always found him to be a little too positive (in fact I was shocked the first time I enjoyed reading a review of his, for Fantastic Four).

ughthemorons 14 years, 2 months ago

Look, the bottom line is that Mr. Niccum has a job to do. Obviously that is to watch movies and to let us know how they are according to his standards and if they are worth watching. He is not Roger Ebert, he is Jon Niccum. That being said, those of us who like the movies that Pixar makes should not be put out by others opinions. I saw this movie last night, and enjoyed it. Not all of us happen to have the same views, and it is wonderful that certain media in this day in age allow us to express our opinion. So, if you have been a fan of the Pixar movies in the past and wouldn't mind seeing another one that has been shoveled out onto the theaters, go ahead and see it. However, if you happen to be a diehard Toy Story or Finding Nemo fan, Cars may not be for you because you'll probably find yourself comparing it to the other great Pixar movies instead of enjoying it.

justathought 14 years, 2 months ago

Saw it with my hubby and two boys and we all loved it. We are still talking about the funny parts. I think this was a great movie. I'd go see it again.

Just a mom :P

Gabe Hoffman 14 years, 2 months ago

Well it has more to do with the principle that someone gets a job to review movies according to their own standards. As though their opinion over rides "common folk" such as ourselves. I think the pure enjoyment of a movie should be it's true marker. After all, it is entertainment.

Staci Dark Simpson 14 years, 2 months ago

Don't believe the review, I thought this was a great movie! Effects and sound were great, I liked the story line and I found it appealing as an adult also. My child has been talking about it since we have seen it. Good movie for the whole family!!

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