Weak story hobbles Cars
By Lady Liberty
* 1/2 out of ****
As most of you already know, I'm not a big fan of animation or of children's movies. But good reviews combined with the fact that there was literally nothing else new at my local theatres this weekend all but forced me to buy a ticket to Cars. Now that I've put in my two hours in a half-filled theatre, I can tell you one thing with some certainty: I have no idea how some of those good reviews ever came to be written.
The general story told by Cars is a simple one — as is to be expected from a movie aimed squarely at the elementary-school set: Race car Lightning McQueen (capably voiced by Owen Wilson) is fast, but not too nice. You see, he knows how good he is, and he rarely misses an opportunity to brag. Lightning is in a three-way tie for this year's coveted Piston Cup, and he's determined to be the first rookie car to take the trophy. All that stands in his way are his two chief competitors.
Veteran racer "The King" (surprisingly well voiced by retired NASCAR champion Richard Petty) is running his last race before retirement. Not only his crown but his lucrative endorsement contract will go to the next top racer. Meanwhile, the experienced Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) will do anything to win, including some questionable moves on the track. Though Lightning has a very real chance to win, his hubris costs him and the three finish the big race in a photo finish tie. That, in turn, results in an unprecedented "race off" to take place in California the following week.
Lightning, who has just alienated yet another pit crew, climbs aboard his transport vehicle for the trip to the west coast. Mac (John Ratzenberger) actually doesn't seem to mind his passenger's attitude. But if Lightning notices at all, he's much too busy making demands to do much else. Though Mac is concerned he's too tired to make it to California in one night, he does his level best to comply with the orders. Unfortunately, Mac is right, Lightning is wrong, and a mishap on the road finds the two separated and Lightning on his own in an out of the way small town.
Lightning is more than a little taken aback when the few denizens who remain living in the community don't know who he is. He's even more disturbed to discover how little they care. Doc Hudson (brilliantly brought to curmudgeonly life by Paul Newman) isn't inclined to put up with Lightning's antics or his attitude and would just as soon see the race car leave town as quickly as possible. But local innkeeper Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) determines that Lightning isn't going to take advantage of her or her friends and that he, in fact, owes them a little something.
During his sojourn in Radiator Springs, Lightning meets other colorful characters including a rust bucket tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, who is perfectly cast); low rider Ramone (Cheech Marin) and his 1950's floozy, Flo (Jennifer Lewis); a rigidly upright Jeep named Sarge (Paul Dooley); a psychedelic van (George Carlin); and an Italian tire dealer named Luigi (Tony Shaloub) who works with a sidekick named Guido (Guido Quaroni).
Between run-ins with the law and nighttime shenanigans, Lightning finally gets the chance to learn that there's more to life than winning races. He sees that actions have consequences, and that others have feelings. But will the lessons sink in? And if they do, what does that mean to his pursuit of the Piston Cup?
Cars is another film from Pixar Studios, so you can safely bet that the animation is superb. Although cars don't lend themselves to as much human-like expressiveness as do toys (Toy Story and Toy Story 2) or fish (Finding Nemo), the quality of the voice work does make up for some of that lack. The chrome and other metal finishes depicted are just terrific (as a graphic designer and artist, I know just how difficult it is to get a natural looking sheen on objects!), and the background scenery is nothing less than stunning in the main while the animation itself is smooth as silk.
The real problem for me was a script that just wasn't funny. The relative simplicity and predictability was forgivable — again, look at the age and sophistication of the target audience — but the almost total lack of humor was not. There were plenty of kids in the showing I attended, and I didn't hear a single giggle out of any of them (on the plus side, I also didn't hear much else out of them, and over the course of a two hour movie that's actually pretty good). In fact, the only part of the entire film I personally found amusing was the little surprise appended to the end of the credits (if you do go to see Cars, be sure to stick around for that).
Superlative graphics and excellent voice work just aren't enough to take Cars and raise it to the level of some of the better animated films released previously. Earlier efforts also made good use of computers but didn't rely on them to take the place of a good script. That's where Cars finishes an unfortunate — and distant — second.
POLITICAL NOTES: There's one point made in Cars that will be all but entirely lost on the children who see it. Their parents, however, will find themselves almost literally beaten over the head with the overwhelmingly blunt commentary made mid-movie which concerns the building of interstate highways. The only real surprise to me is that nobody took what seems a tailor-made opportunity to talk alternative fuels and hybrid engines.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Cars is rated G. I certainly saw nothing unsuitable for even the youngest family members. I do, however, think that the script uses enough big words and marginally complicated concepts that the littlest ones will be confused or even bored by the onscreen action. Cars is most likely fine for those children of age six or so and up, though the older they get the less I suspect they'll like it.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at email@example.com.