Gentlemen, Start Your Computers

Cars

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 17, 2006

 

"Cars," the G-rated computer-generated cartoon from the normally reliable John Lasseter of Pixar Animation Studios, takes place in an alternate universe America populated only by talking vehicles. Owen Wilson blandly voices Lightning McQueen, a rookie NASCAR racecar who, on his way to California for the climactic contest of the stock car season, gets waylaid in the Arizona burgh of Radiator Springs, a once-hopping Route 66 stopping point that has been Nowheresville since the new interstate bypassed it in 1966. Its rusty but truehearted denizens, such as the town doctor, a 1951 Hudson Hornet with voice by Paul Newman, teach him important life lessons.
 
Although the Pixar animators do everything imaginable to infuse the cars with personalities, automobiles still prove ill-chosen agents for two hours of anthropomorphizing. In particular, Luigi and Guido, the Italian-stereotype Fiats working at the Pirelli tire shop, suffer from the autos' lack of hands with which to gesticulate vociferously. A more subtle deficiency of this kids' movie is that there are no kids in the factory-built world of "Cars."
 
And then there's the fanatically precise scenery. One of Jorge Luis Borges's funnier conceits was the fictional Chinese emperor so adamant about his imperial cartographers' providing more detail that he eventually had them draw a map of China exactly as large as China itself. "Cars" is similarly unclear on the concept of artistic abstraction. Back in 1995's "Toy Story," Lasseter's computer graphic techniques were charming in their creative simplification and exaggeration of reality. Now, the technology has evolved to where, through a prodigious expenditure of talent, time, and money, the CGI desert in "Cars" looks virtually as photorealistically genuine as the actual desert in, say, the modestly budgeted "Road Warrior" -- and, therefore, almost as pointless as the emperor's 1:1 scale map.
 
When enough billions are on the table, perhaps even Lasseter, one of the true heroes of American popular culture, can lose sight of what has made his art effective.
 
Pixar's history is famously heartwarming. Purchased by Apple founder Steve Jobs in 1986, Pixar first gained notice that year with Lasseter's 150 second short about mother and baby desk lamps, "Luxo Jr." Two decades ago, everybody knew that computer animation was the next big thing, but it was then skull-crushingly slow to create. Despite the tedium of waiting for 1980s processors, Lasseter infused human warmth into his computer images. Ultimately, Lasseter's 15 years of effort paid off with the superb blockbuster "Toy Story."
 
Pixar became the reincarnation of Walt Disney's old studio -- a specialty shop crafting only high quality, non-edgy 3-D family films, such as "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles." Finally, last January, Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion, with Lasseter as the prize human asset.
 
Will the money ruin Pixar? It's disquieting that the Disney 2-D animation renaissance that began with "The Little Mermaid" in 1989 and hit its peak with "Beauty and the Beast" sputtered out after "The Lion King" became a billion dollar property in 1994. Animators who once had few cares besides wowing each other with imagination and comedy in their dingy warehouse in Glendale quickly aged into profit centers nearly paralyzed with fiscal responsibility in their new architectural showcase at Disney headquarters in Burbank.
 
Although Pixar films use the highest technology, the company sends numerous employees each year to Robert McKee's screenwriting seminars (which were parodied in Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation"). McKee gets his traditionalist ideas about storytelling from Aristotle and Golden Age Hollywood films like "Casablanca." McKee's adages have served Pixar well in making their films focus on narrative and character rather than technonerdisms or one-liners.


Perhaps Pixar's McKee formula may be reaching diminishing returns, though, as "Cars" turns out to have the same plot as the 1991 Michael J. Fox romantic-comedy "Doc Hollywood." Moreover, McKee's emphasis on drama has been taken too much to heart in "Cars," as the six screenwriters forgot to include any jokes (until the hilarious end credits). Stock car racing, which is a sort-of covert ethnic pride rally for people who aren't allowed to hold ethnic pride rallies, is treated too reverently for a film that purports to be a comedy.
 
With luck, though, "Cars" will turn out to be a minor detour for Lasseter and Pixar. Although lacking inspiration, "Cars" remains an above-average film, delivering intelligent detailing (because it still takes 17 hours to render each frame, years are available for fine-tuning), patriotic nostalgia, and uplifting sentiments about teamwork and humility.
 
Rated G.

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