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Cars   B

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: G
Director: John Lasseter
Writers: Dan Fogelman, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, Jorgen Klubien
Cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis.

Review by Rob Vaux

The plot is a threadbare retread of small-town values, in which a high-rolling city slicker learns some Important Lessons from the simple yet good-hearted country folk of the backwater burg into which he stumbles. The subjects are anthropomorphic cars -- the sort with which Chevron ads have been creeping us out for years -- given life in a strange alternate universe where human beings never existed and the need for opposable thumbs has been magically overcome. The casting follows no-brain stereotyping of the laziest sort, attaching character actors to obvious punch-line figures carefully calculated to provoke a mindless Pavlovian response. Larry the Motherfucking Cable Guy is in it. Fourth billed. In a kid-friendly, scene-stealing position as wacky sidekick number one.

And yet somehow Cars gets that ugly engine under the hood and makes it purr. Inexplicably, it pulls an entertaining movie out of what should have been a straight-to-video clunker. No, check that. It pulls out an entertaining Pixar movie: a movie that, while hardly the cream of the studio's crop, can at least be placed within shouting distance of Toy Story and Finding Nemo without setting the movie gods' teeth on edge.

Where did it all go right?

The principal savior might be Pixar's usual attention to detail, focused in this case on the twin subjects of the automotive world and the glorious heyday of Route 66. Every vehicular character on display (and there are hundreds) has a basis in a real-world make and model, from turn-of-the-century Model Ts to tricked-out Hondas straight from The Fast and the Furious. Car nuts will revel at the loving care with which each one is rendered, as well as the throwaway jokes centered on creeping rust, whitewall tires, and the NASCAR circuit (among other subjects). But the film's true genius lies in understanding how an ordinary automobile can be possessed of its own personality. Any lug-nut fan will tell you that every vehicle has a unique soul, fed in part by images from advertising, but also defined by the shape of its body, the stickers on its bumper, and the purpose for which it is used (whether intended by the manufacturers or not). Pixar spins the notion out into an entire universe of four-wheeled sentience, where automotive brands stamp the characters with a delightful sense of individualism. Many are patently obvious (a VW microbus as a zoned-out hippy; how long did it take them to come up with that?), but it makes them no less endearing when they quip their one-liners and smile through their grilled teeth. They move as cars do (with sharp acceleration, controlled skids, and the like), and yet they live and breathe as much as Woody the Cowboy or James P. Sullivan. Animating an object is one thing, but Pixar has always understood how to give their characters the spark of reality, and their touch is on effective display here.

Director (and Pixar Grand Poobah) John Lasseter places his fuel-injected heroes in a typically rich CGI environment, mixing the high-tech intensity of 21st-century speed racing with the throwback charms of highway vacations. On his way to the final match of the Piston Cup Championship, hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) gets sidetracked in Radiator Springs, a small town that the interstate has passed by. Lasseter nestles it amid the stunning vistas of the American Southwest, while cloaking its two-lane streets in the neon and chrome of a simpler age: an age when getting there really was half the fun. The town's resident cars are largely forgotten by the outside world, but their folksy pleasantness and laid-back ways have an effect on McQueen's me-first demeanor. Led by a crusty old Hudson Hornet (voiced by Paul Newman) with secrets to keep, and a cute little Porsche (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) on permanent vacation from the LA rat race, they slowly win him over to the notion that life is more than just finishing first.

The film works not because the scenario is fresh (ye gods, it is not), but because Radiator Springs is so genuinely appealing, with service stations that dispense gasoline like malts at a drive-in and a car park made of giant traffic cones reminiscent of the famous "wigwam" bungalows of Route 66 lore. Though not as striking as the vistas of Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, the town brings a strong sense of integrity to this universe. We believe in it because the film has covered all the bases, lending it a modicum of internal logic and using Pixar's trademark wit and humor to cover up the lingering questions. The various supporting figures -- mostly residents of Radiator Springs -- are one-trick ponies to be sure, but filled with good fun nonetheless. (Who can say no to George Carlin voicing the aforementioned microbus, or Cheech Marin as an Impala lowrider who changes his paint job the way you'd change your clothes?)

Indeed, Cars is all the more impressive because -- by every known movie law there is -- this scenario shouldn't work. The plot is so shopworn, the concept so weird and potentially unsettling, that anyone else who attempted it would have doubtless gone up in flames. It's yet another testament to Pixar's imagination and work ethic that they can take a concept so fraught with peril and still come out smelling nice (if not quite rosy). I'm disappointed that they've fallen to Earth a little bit -- Cars has shortcomings, to be sure, and they speak to the first real signs of creative fatigue. Sooner or later Lasseter and company are bound to drop the ball. But not here, and not now... and by pulling this one off, they seem to be walking on water. Maybe they really have cut a deal with the devil. Maybe they're just the best there is at what they do. Whatever the reason, Cars proves their worth yet again -- not by creating a masterpiece, but simply by turning some very dubious material into a decent night at the movies.

Review published 06.09.2006.

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