WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Self-sure rookie Lightning McQueen finds himself in a three-way fight for the Piston Cup when his arrogance gets the better of him, and finds himself in ‘Hillbilly Hell’ when his journey to the tie-breaker takes a destructive detour to the neglected town of Radiator Springs. While McQueen pays for his reckless behaviour, he discovers some startling things about the vehicles he meets.
Say what you like about Pixar, you can’t accuse them of sticking to what they know. Having brought toys and monsters to life, they have also created lovable insects, fish and – in their previous film, The Incredibles – told a less cuddly but still satisfying film of domestic superheroes. With Cars, John Lasseter and unfortunate co-director Joe Ranft (with awful irony, he died in a car accident) change tack again and present a simple, colourful tale of ambitious racing cars.
The cars in question are dignified reigning champion The King (voiced by Richard Petty), aggressive (not to say cheating) perennial runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), and newcomer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). McQueen looks guaranteed to win in his rookie year, but his cocky insistence on listening only to himself costs him outright victory when he refuses to change tyres. A tie-breaker for the Piston Cup is announced in California, and on the way McQueen is already dreaming of fame and lucrative sponsorship deals; however, he fails to keep his truck Mack (John Ratzenberger) awake and ends up, alone and lightless, in Radiator Springs, guarded by a hillbilly tow truck called Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).
Gruff local doctor and magistrate Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman) initially dismisses McQueen, but he’s persuaded by shapely Porsche Sally (Bonnie Hunt) to inflict punishment on him, namely fixing the road that, in better times, brought visitors and commerce to the town. Although McQueen is smitten with Sally, the other townsfolk are of no interest to him, since he’s desperate to get to the race; but Radiator Springs slowly works its magic on him, especially when he discovers Doc Hudson was a champion racer in his day. That said, new friends are surely no good if they can’t help Lightning win?
It gets repetitive, I know, but I really can’t say too much about the consistency of Pixar’s technical technical excellence. In Cars, they pull off several impressive feats, not least moulding the hard, metal lines of automobiles into recognisable, empathisable (if that’s a word) characters. Just occasionally, the gap between the eyes and ‘eyebrows’ is a bit too far apart and expressions are lost, and I’ll never get used to the idea of cars having tongues; but in general, Pixar have done a great job in fashioning a world entirely populated by vehicles.
There’s a superb sense of speed during the racing, and the cars bounce reflections off their shiny panels in totally convincing fashion – the computing power involved must be mind-boggling. The beautiful landscapes around Radiator Springs are modelled with just as much attention to detail, so while you perhaps don’t forget the technical nature of the film quite as much as you do with Toy Story or Finding Nemo – after all, you’re watching cars with eyes in their windscreens – you’re also looking at something pretty wonderful most of the time.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Cars is particularly good. Even the best-looking film is only as good as its plot and in this respect, to my adult mind, Cars stops very short of the best of Pixar. Others raise significant comparisons with Doc Hollywood, but even without that specific example the general plot is a less-than-fresh story of a city slicker learning life lessons from a community he originally can’t wait to leave. McQueen’s conversion to Good Samaritan is entirely predictable, and effected in a predictable way – through pretty female influence and a respected father figure who knows what he’s talking about.
It’s as though the six writers, instead of boosting each other’s creativity, have forced each other into a bland average. It’s a much tougher sell than other Pixar films, too, especially outside America; it’s quite easy to throw yourself back to a childhood of cherishing your toys; it’s harder – especially if you’re the pre-teen audience Cars seems to have been engineered towards – to get teary-eyed over a golden age of pre-Interstate motoring. To see the unrestrained creativity of Pixar applied to traffic just seems like a waste, somehow; but even with all those criticisms, the end still left me emotional – for a moment.
Even more than its plot, perhaps, Cars’ biggest problem is that its lead is such an ass. With the smug attitude Wilson displayed so effectively in Zoolander and annoying phrases such as ‘ka-chow!’, it’s not easy to feel any sympathy for Lightning McQueen, since his inability to create friendships is entirely down to his own selfishness. I don’t find Mater as irksome as many appear to, but he’s a very broad stereotype and the access point for a glut of childish fart jokes; Sally is as cookie-cutter as they come, and Ratzenberger barely gets enough screen time to make an impact, so it’s lucky that the magnificent Paul Newman (in his final role) is on top form as Doc Hudson. His gravelly gravitas compensates for the horrendous casting of Jeremy Clarkson as McQueen’s agent, Harv*. He may know a bit about cars, but he sure as hell can’t act. Michael Schumacher fares a little better as a Ferrari, fulfilling the dreams of entertaining tyre specialists Luigi and Guido.
Whatever I think, all of the above has to be seen through the phrase ‘my adult mind.’ I was toy car-mad as a child and I know that younger children (including my nephew) adored Lightning and the whole set-up of Cars. With its speed, bright colours and childish jokes, it’s perfect for youngsters who don’t need the story to be original or complex. For me, Cars is a disappointing film from a company who are capable of brilliance. But look at the DVD and merchandising figures and tell me that John Lasseter doesn’t know precisely what he’s doing.
NOTES: In the British version. Note to studios: please stop doing this. It’s not as if anyone cares, even when it’s done well (which is almost never is).