Anyone with a passing familiarity with the 1991 Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood will experience a twinge of unwelcome déjà vu while watching Pixar’s latest animated juggernaut, Cars. In that early ’90s “gem,” a cocky cosmetic surgeon, en route to Los Angeles in his sports car, got sentenced to community service after ramming into and destroying public property while speeding through a small town. The moral realignment of the doctor followed a predictable, easily digestible course as he got in touch with his civic-mindedness, and fell in love with a spunky small-town beauty. Cars borrows the Doc Hollywood template, but replaces its human characters with their anthropomorphized car equivalents. There are many problems with this, regardless of how you feel about anthropomorphic cars.
Till now, Pixar’s had a pretty spectacular track record in terms of pure storytelling–their product’s deftly blended visual imagination and technical virtuosity with Spielbergian sentiment spiked with a mild, kid-friendly sarcasm. That narrative cocktail has been wildly popular with audiences ever since Toy Story, but, as Cars so dreadfully proves, Lasseter and company have mixed this one once too many times. For the first time, Pixar’s storytelling feels thoroughly by the numbers, as if these CGI mavens finally decided they hit on a tried-and-true formula worth repeating ad nauseam. Their latest project feels at every level on cruise control. True, Pixar has delivered its share of lukewarm material, but even its till-now weakest movie Monsters, Inc. had its moments of freshness and exhilaration (the roller-coaster-like finale in the fright factory, the run-in with the Abominable Snowman, in particular). Cars, on the other hand, conjoins the Doc Hollywood beat sheet with Pixar’s moral dictate that all their movies chart the same moral arc and contain characters who learn the same tripe about humility and friendship.
Cars’ fill-in-the-blank screenplay concerns a cocky rookie racecar, Lightning McQueen, who dreams of winning the upcoming championship and luxuriating in the fame, riches, and celebrity endorsements that come with success. En route to the race in California, Lightning gets stranded in the ramshackle hamlet of Radiator Springs. Sentenced to repairing the road that he tore up upon his arrival in town, Lightning’s initial moping and whining transforms into a realization that, in life, it’s not whether “we make good time” that matters, but rather–are you ready?–that “we have a good time.” Everything else about Cars is just as trite. The middle section of this plodding 116-minute clunker involves Lightning’s budding friendship with a slow-witted hillbilly tow truck, and a romance with a sweet-but-spunky Porsche. Finally, it’s McQueen’s admiration for a washed-up former racing champion (voiced by Paul Newman), now living bitterly in the backwater, that turns him on to the beauty of loyalty and friendship.
What troubles me more than the obviousness of Cars’ screenplay is that it took eight people to patch it together: Lasseter and three co-writers, two guys credited with “Story,” and two more credited with the hoity-toity moniker of “Additional Screenplay Material.” That’s seven more than it took to write Chinatown. Perhaps the most unfortunate decision behind Cars was conceptual. The NASCAR storyline seems of little interest to its 5-year-old target audience (halfway through the screening, the child beside me began snoozing), the pre-teen crowd just doesn’t jive to Pixar’s too-cute cartoonishness, while the adults will all groan and squirm at the movie’s stale tricks.
Lasseter conceives of the Cars universe as inhabited totally by various types of four-wheelers–a concept not only aesthetically monotonous (as the shots of a coliseum packed with these equally ugly-looking things testify), but imaginatively sound only on the surface. Unlike Toy Story, wherein the fate of its man-made protagonists, sometimes hinged on the actions of their human masters, there isn’t a single acknowledgement of a human being here, which is rather ridiculous considering that humans are the only reason cars exist. Had Lasseter and his co-writers drawn on the fears and conflicts that humans represent to their fossil-fuel burning existence, then we might’ve had the rudiments of an interesting screenplay.
As slick, richly detailed as its CGI design is, Cars is just another leap forward in animation’s baffling march towards photorealism: Its images come to us buffed and waxed. Yet all that resplendent realism gets us no closer to smart, chancy storytelling and towards the inner illumination in the specatator that is the destination of all true art. Instead, we find the obligatory sweeping shots of race tracks, desert buttes, and “you are there” POVs of racecars zipping along chasis-to-chasis, all of it noisy, boring, and, frankly, smug. Smugness pervades Cars top to bottom and wall to wall, aggravated by the tired shticks turned in by its cast.
Owen Wilson has now officially overstayed his welcome, having plied his lovable doofus bit once (twice, thrice?) too many times. Newman’s turn as a redeemed old fogy is as tired as his character. A greater cause for concern is that Lasseter feels content to play up for laughs stereotyped variations of his “non-white” cars. For example, we get Flo, the sass-talking “black” classic with the fins, and Ramone, the hydraulically tricked-out cruiser who seems the multiplex version of the Hispanic gangsta. This is Disney/Pixar’s version of ethnic diversity–stripped of context and paraded on view for whitebread amusement. Cars is a steep step downwards for all and everything concerned, unless you’re a Caucasian sports car.
Directed by: John Lasseter
Written by: John Lasseter, Dan Fogelman, Philip Loren, Kiel Murray, Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, Jorgen Klubien, Joe Ranft
Cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, Joe Ranft