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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 11, 2006

If you were less than overwhelmed when the first trailers for “Cars” came out, you’re not alone. Pixar, the studio that brought us such excellent films as “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo,” was going to do a movie about talking vehicles? How…pedestrian.

Then again, why not? Americans love their autos, after all, and a stupefyingly large segment of the population enjoys NASCAR, so making a movie about anthropomorphic stock cars must have seemed like a can’t-miss proposal. Besides, this is Pixar we’re talking about. Since bursting out of the gate with “Toy Story” in 1995, the animation juggernaut has yet to miss a step. Therefore the question we have to ask is: Does the studio continue its streak of exceptional filmmaking?

The answer, for those too lazy to keep reading, is “Hell no.”

Granted, the opening race sequence – in which brash newcomer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) qualifies for the finals of the “Piston Cup” – is more exciting than most all real-life NASCAR events. But there are disquieting early moments as well. For example, the introduction of characters like race announcers “Bob Cutlass” and “Darrell Cartrip.” These are dismal gags, more at home in a movie like “Shark Tale,” or one of Disney’s non-Pixar cartoons.

But you shrug it off as the story gets going. McQueen has to travel to California for the big race, but gets sidetracked on the way and ends up in the run-down Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There, he’s busted for speeding and sentenced to repair the road he damaged during a high velocity rampage. McQueen chafes at this treatment, of course, for he is shallow and selfish. And that’s when you realize something else: Lightning McQueen represents the first time we have an out and out a*****e as a lead Pixar character. Many have had flaws: Woody was fearful of change and Marlin was overly protective, but all of them had reasons to behave the way they did (Marlin watched a barracuda eat his wife and most of his kids, after all), and were otherwise decent folk. Having an alleged protagonist who’s so one-dimensionally obnoxious tends to limit the audience’s sympathy quotient.

Naturally, McQueen grudgingly comes to befriend the town’s eccentric residents, though “eccentric” might be stretching it. George Carlin voices “Filmore,” a VW microbus that – shockingly – speaks in a heavy hippie patois, Cheech Marin also bravely plays against type as the low rider “Ramone,” Bonnie Hunt is the fairly vanilla “Sally Carrera” (a Porsche, no relation to Asia), and Paul Newman is crusty old “Doc Hudson.” Unfortunately, any joy we feel at having Newman on board is dashed by the introduction of “Mater,” the town tow truck, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.

Whether you like this movie or start contemplating mass murder about 45 minutes in will depend largely on how much of Larry’s shtick you can stomach. While Mater may not be the most important character in the film, he has almost as many lines as McQueen, and each is more abysmally unfunny than the last. And though “Cars” can’t lay claim to being the first Pixar movie with a fart joke (I think that honor falls to “Nemo”), they definitely make up for lost time, offering a multitude of gas passing gags in the scene where Mater – no s**t – takes McQueen “tractor tipping.” To top that off, we get oodles of cameo appearances from racing luminaries like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mario Andretti. There’s no compelling reason for this, beyond getting the racing aficionados among us to spasm in delight at (assumedly) recognizing some famous voices. As animation goes, it’s unforgivably lazy. As filmmaking goes, it’s blatant pandering, and Pixar of all studios shouldn’t need to stoop to it.

McQueen’s inevitable epiphany comes when Sally takes him for a drive and shows him how the bad old interstate came along and turned Radiator Springs into a veritable ghost town (apparently along with every other burg that once relied upon rural traffic for its livelihood). In a repugnant flashback sequence, we’re drowned in a pantload of syrupy Boomer nostalgia as Sally regales us with tales of bygone days when life moved at a slower pace and folks were more, y’know, neighborly.

Pardon me while I attempt to choke that down. Disney – the same company that marketed the Muppets and Winnie the Pooh into oblivion and helped turn Time Square into an outlet mall – is going to lecture me on the commodification of America? They’re going to lead the lamentations for America’s loss of innocence? F**k. That.

All of this simply makes the film’s technical expertise stand out more glaringly. As they did with the underwater scenes in Nemo, Pixar has perfectly captured the imagery of driving. On the track, the highway, or a dirt road, the animation is uniformly excellent, and the only aspect of the movie that isn’t half-assed. I can’t say enough about how beautiful this movie looks, which is all the more maddening when you consider how little comparable effort was put into coming up with an original story, interesting characters, or a decent script.

In spite of what you might hear from other critics, Pixar has not “done it again.” Will children like it? Of course, but they’re going to like “Garfield 2” as well. Pixar’s past films were exceptional because they weren’t like every other perfunctory kids’ movie out there. They had heart, and great characters, and were written smartly enough that adults could enjoy them too. If “Cars” is indicative of the kind of movie we can expect from Pixar post-Disney merger, well, there’s always Miyazaki.

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  1. Simmba says:

    WOAH WOAH WOAH . How can the movie cars recieve a lower review then Ratatouille ? That movie was not only a waste of time but had no base no moral , My kids were asking to go home or to the mall it was a COMPLETE waste of time. Who cares about a Rat that can cook pullling a mans hair ? The commercial Was a 10/10 but the movie was a full blown 1 . Cars is a great movie , i see nothing wrong in it. And im the one whos a picky movie chooser. Walle put me to sleep yet people raved about it. In my opinion critics are still upset about the cars talking , build a bridge get over it .If full grown adults have a problem with lions ants monsters cars or anything talking in pixar movies , Quit watchin em . This movie is one of the best pixar movies to date. If you wanna complain about a movie that sucks , watch cars 2.
    But cars 1 by no means is a incomplete movie etc. Its very well put together etc. My opinion and I Really dont care what anyone has to say bout it. It is a 100 / 100 for me and many others. Good day haters.

  2. Thomas E. Reed says:

    I thought they came up with creative solutions to make automobiles “emote” and use items like cameras, but I still felt this was a pitch meeting that was conducted during a long nap.

    I suspect that someone – at Disney or Pixar, it doesn’t matter – needed to make a “Toyetic” movie, which would sell lots of toys to people. They gave it their all, but it didn’t jell. Even the beautiful depiction of the American Southwest and the old “Route 66” culture didn’t raise it above the level of a bad parody of “Doc Hollywood.”

  3. Syd says:

    Still, Cars is, without a doubt, Pixar’s weakest film. It’s worth a watch even then.

  4. Syd says:

    I concur with Chris, Pixar and Disney are not one and the same. Disney may own Pixar from a business standpoint, but Pixar was bought by Disney because Pixar was going to pull out of their deal with Disney because they wanted control over their own movies.

    Check it out:

  5. Chris says:

    The Disney company had nothing to do with the story of Cars or the lecturing on the “commodification of America.” Pixar did that. Just because Disney bought Pixar doesn’t make them one and the same.

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