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de-VICE #1

Pixar's 'Cars' stalls mid-race


text by andrez bergen - the daily yomiuri (japan) - june 2006

Voice cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry The Cable Guy, Michael Keaton, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger


Ever since Steve Jobs rather presciently snapped up the former computer graphics division of Lucasfilm, Ltd., for a measly 10 million dollars back in '86, Pixar has accelerated its winning streak in Hollywood animation stakes, against inconsistent competitors like DreamWorks.

Last year was the studio's most profitable to date, raking in 15 times Jobs' original investment - mostly on the back of The Incredibles (2004) and Finding Nemo (2003). This January, Pixar also scored the keys to the Magic Kingdom, via its merger with Disney.

It's been a mesmerizing ride.

Throughout its 20-year jaunt, through earlier hits like Toy Story (1995) and Monsters, Inc. (2001), Pixar's strength has been not just its uber-progressive eye for CG detailing, but the team's sense of humor and flexibility with its intended target-audiences - an animated sortie by Pixar can appeal equally to preschool whipper-snappers and grouchy retirees' laugh quotas.

The versatility of the studio's subject-matter over the years has also been enviable, Pixar proving itself as adept at lampooning cultural icons as it has been at unfurling cool characters for kids' lunchboxes.

On first impressions, with Pixar's founding father, John Lasseter, back in the driver's seat after a seven-year directorial hiatus, Cars has all the essential ingredients to create another sure-fire winner - checkered flag, lunchbox and all.

But scrape beneath its waxed and polished exterior, and you may walk away a tad disappointed.

Let's start with the plot premise: Churlish, high-octane motor-racing rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) sets the track afire and is all set to take the national championship before an accidental detour off Route 66 sets him in the slow-lane in a sleepy little hick town called Radiator Springs.

There he realizes the error of his ways and becomes best buddies with a multicultural cross-section of motor vehicles bearing engines of gold; he also gets the chance to fall in love with someone aside from himself, and saves said town from obscurity.

All in all, it's a bit like Toy Story on wheels, filtered through a homogenized host of celluloid predecessors including City Slickers, U-Turn and Petticoat Junction.

While at times quirky, mostly this yarn borders on pedestrian. Chances are it's all the backseat drivers involved - Lasseter may have written and directed with Joe Ranft (who was tragically, if ironically, killed last year in an automobile accident), but there was scripting input from at least nine other people.

The cast also struggles to turn over. Cars plunks 81-year-old veteran actor Paul Newman alongside the more comic-inclined Wilson, Michael Keaton, Cheech Marin, and Pixar regular John Ratzenberger (Hamm the Piggy Bank in Toy Story).

Ratzenberger is side-tracked (as Mack, the transport truck) until the final credits, Marin fills out a tired Latino stereotype, Keaton isn't allowed driving time to develop his surly take on McQueen's chief racing rival, and Wilson is unusually flat as the stockcar enfant terrible.

It's left to Newman to save the (spoken-word) day, but even his gravely intonations - as Doc Hudson, the 1951 Hudson Hornet M.D. with a mysterious, racy past - aren't quite up to the Herculean task here.

Lasseter has confirmed that the character name of Lightning McQueen is in part a homage to the late, great Steve McQueen, the actor who pushed the driving envelope in movies like Bullitt and Le Mans; Newman himself has been a renowned car racing nut for years on end. Classic Pixar would've tweaked this angle for more than it was worth, yet all we get here is Lightning McQueen's racing number - 95 - which is a mundane reference to the year Toy Story was released.

There are some genuinely funny sequences here, like the tractor-tipping, the closing-credits Ratzenberger rant, and the flying bugs which are, yes, VW Beetles. But these moments are fleeting and spaced far apart.

Most surprising is the lack of depth in the personas - particularly since Pixar usually renders insightful character designs and personalities. This may be just animation, but coloring between the lines is essential.

Luigi, the 1959 Fiat 500, and Fillmore, the 1960 Volkswagen Kombi van, offer cute asides, but visualizing central character Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) as a 2002 Porsche 911 is a bland choice for the love interest. Wouldn't a 1969 VW Karmann Ghia or a 1960 Volvo P1800S Sports qualify as far more sexy options, if we're going to get all auto-erotic?

For a studio following up on its two most internationally successful films, in its 20th anniversary year, Cars is Pixar's least satisfying outing.

Unless you reside in the heartland of the American Midwest, twiddle with V8 engines, listen to country music, smash the odd mailbox, vote for George W., have secret hankerings for reruns of The Beverley Hillbillies, or adore NASCAR racing - as Lasseter does - your attention span may start sputtering before you've completed the first lap.


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