"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
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.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)