The crowd is uproarious. The stadium is practically shaking. Two checkered flags are waved and they’re off … to a sad and unfortunately slow start. I say “unfortunate” because I am speaking of Pixar Animation Studio’s seventh feature, CARS, and the Pixar name usually ensures sophistication, wit and insight in addition to awe-inspiring, revolutionary animation. Further to that, it usually means a darn good time but CARS drags its wheels, leading me to think Pixar might be due for a good tune-up. The problem is not with the quality of the animation, which bursts out straight away in the opening sequence. We are introduced to Lightning McQueen (voiced by the ever laid back, Owen Wilson), a spunky red sports car with a lot of scattered energy to burn and not enough experience or patience to see things through to the finish. He cruises past the rest of his competitors as he races for the Piston Cup, the highest achievement in race-car driving. The arena lights blare down on to the track and into our eyes as the cheers from the stands erupt to deafening new heights. Everything is as it should be but for one jarring detail. The patrons that fill the stands are other cars. Yes, people go to watch other people race against each other but this is a world inhabited by nothing but cars. It’s like “Planet of the Cars” and directors John Lasseter and the late Joe Ranft do very little to ground this reality. And yes, it’s an animated film but I couldn’t get past wondering how the cars managed to build the stadium and all the roads leading up to in the first place.
While on his way to another race in another town, Lightning gets lost and ends up arrested, or in this case impounded, in a middle-of-nowhere town after accidentally tearing up their road. He is sentenced to repairing the road before he can leave. Here he meets an expectedly colourful group of cars that run through a gamut of stereotypes, from the hippie minibus to the military standard hard-ass to the pimp-my-ride 59 Chevy. I have never seen the folks at Pixar deliver such one-dimensional three-dimensional characters. There is no good reason that these cars would inhabit the same town and so why would we even be there? The only resident that seems like he belongs there is a tow-truck by the name of Mater (as in to-mater). Voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, Mater is the dimwitted naïf who unknowingly bestows wisdom upon others. He is hilarious without realizing and is the most believable element of this film.
The clichés don’t stop at the characters either. The moral foundation of CARS focuses on being in too much of a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Upon being forced to slow down, Lightning learns that there is more to life than winning races and scoring cool sponsorships. When you aren’t speeding down the highway, you can see the cars around you and maybe even become their friend or fall in love. Lightning brings some much needed life to this dreary waste of a town and the inhabitants show him a thing or two about loyalty and the simpler pleasures that come from standing still. A good chunk of this lesson comes from Lightning’s love interest, Sally (a coy Bonnie Hunt), a car who studied law and climbed the corporate ladder before she realized she had no idea who she was. Ordinarily, I would find these themes engaging but cars are built for speed, not for taking the time to smell the motor oil.
The beauty of a Pixar film is best exhibited in their 1998 offering, A BUG’S LIFE. The ants and circus bugs that make up the majority of the characters have personality that more than makes up for the lack of time to develop them all. More importantly, the bug world is believable because it co-exists with a human world, bringing light to a universe that we ignorant humans don’t even know is right beneath our feet. Even the entirely unreal monsters of MONSTERS INC have doorways that lead to an earthly plain. CARS had an inherently huge obstacle to get past from the start line but instead of pushing harder, Lasseter and Ranft left CARS on cruise control. The result is more a casual Sunday drive then a high speed race – enjoyable and pleasant but lacking purpose and drive.