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Cars (review)

Out of Gas

I read a terrific science fiction story a few years back about alien observers of planet Earth who made a fundamental mistake about what they were seeing from their far-off perch in space: They believed that the dominant lifeforms on the planet were the large metal creatures they saw scurrying around the surface, and that these creatures were infested with small carbon-based parasites. It was a funny and clever commentary on humanity’s dependence on the automobile. I wish I could remember the name of the story or its author so I could tell you to go read that instead of wasting your time with Cars.

For there is no such droll subtext to Pixar’s latest animated flick, which seems to think that there’s something inherently amusing in automobiles that are just like people, except they’re metal. Like this: There’s a sight gag early in the film in which there’s a long line at the women’s restroom at a racetrack while the guys just zip right into the men’s room, no waiting necessary. It’s meant to be comical cuz they’re cars! But they’re people! But they’re cars! Huh? It’s actually weird and creepy — bad enough that there’s something about the idea of cars having mouths and teeth and tongues that makes ya go “ewww,” but now we’re prompted to wonder about the excretory organs of “male” and “female” automobiles.
There’s also a moment that seems to be a joke about male rape in prison environments — our hero, racecar Lightning McQueen, gets a tow-truck hook up the rear bumper in an impound yard and yelps in pain and surprise — that I shook off as me just being ridiculous, but there it was again. In a supposed kiddie movie that, at two tedious hours long, could have used some trimming, there’s no excuse for this kind of thing.

There’s pretty much no excuse for the whole movie, in fact. The animation is gorgeous, of course — that’s a given now with animated films; they’re all gorgeous to look at. So it’ll distract the kiddies, if they don’t get too fidgety in the drawn-out, muddled middle of the tale, and the few potentially offensive moments will go over their heads. But animation geeks waiting for the next Toy Story will have to keep waiting. The few bits that tickle are purely in the background — the shingle for the “doctor of internal combustion”; the insects that are tiny, winged VW Bugs; the airplane contrails that look like tire tracks. Alas, there’s nothing in the up-front stuff where your attention is meant to be that’s at all unexpected or unusual or witty. Lightning McQueen (the voice of Owen Wilson: Wedding Crashers, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) is a hotshot city car stuck in the country where he’ll learn that rusty cars are people too — you could swap out the cars for human beings and not change the story one little bit, and you can get away with that, maybe, if you’re ripping off Hamlet, like The Lion King did. But Cars is ripping off Doc Hollywood. That’s pretty damn depressing for a medium, animation, that should be all about flights of fancy.

Cars reeks of Pixar’s palpable desperation to repeat the genius of Toy Story and Toy Story 2: director John Lasseter is a Pixar vet who should, theoretically, be able to pull it off, but the eight credited writers can’t get their act together. (Eight writers? Come on!) The toys of Toy Story were not simply plastic people — they were toys, with peculiarly toy-ish motivations and desires and dreams. That’s not true of the cars of Cars, who are just metal humans. (Cars who felt pecularily, car-ishly protective of the humans they carried around could make for an intriguing tale… but there are no humans at all here.) And where Toy Story could inject the unpredictable — what a smart and funny move to make the big bad T. rex dinosaur a coward voiced by nebbishy Wallace Shawn — here, the rusty old rural tow truck is, quelle surprise, a dumb redneck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the tickle in that?

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MPAA: rated G

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • Miguel

    Thank you for being the only voice of reason left in the world, as most professional critics are falling victims of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome, praising this film because it’s Pixar and they can’t see how empty this colourful mess really is.

    Could not agree more about how wrong it feels to have these human-cars, just like last year’s ROBOTS. It is not a commentary on society (Dreamworks’s Over the hedge), emotionally involving and unforgettable (Toy Story), funny or even just entertaining. It is scrap metal produced by people who should know better by now…Oh, I could see this coming from the very first teaser, how could they not smell the disaster coming at them at 200 miles per hour?

  • Miguel

    Another example of ‘adult’ humour: the teenage groupies ‘flash’ Lightning McQueen with their headlights. How ‘funny’ was that? I’m sure it was much funnier when they discussied it at that ‘We’re-Pixar-we-can’t-do-nothing-wrong’ boardroom than it actually was on screen.

  • Miguel

    sorry to invade your space here MaryAnn, but I’d like to know if it made any sense to you that the tractors were ‘cows’ while the cars were ‘humans’. I may be a geek, but that bothered me immensely!

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    Actually, I thought the tractor tipping bit was pretty funny — one of the few few funny bits. And the tractors weren’t the only car-creatures who weren’t humans. There’re the tiny VW Bugs that are insects, for one. But I know what you mean. I was rather disturbed, by some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, by the helicopter and the blimp. We see them, from a distance, zooming around over the racetrack in the beginning of the film, and I found myself wondering: Are cars flying the choppers and the blimp? And then, when we learn that the choppers and the blimp are actually alive themselves… well, that kinda freaked me out, and I don’t know why.

  • Greg R

    The scene that creeped me out was the one in the shop where the older car was up on the lift and Lightning burst in. He turned and said “see anything you like junior?” or something to that effect. Eww!

    I also spent far too much time wondering how in the heck those cars managed to build all of those buildings. (Actually at one point I began wondering if they were experiencing problems related to gas prices and if their government was invading oil rich nations.)

  • Miguel

    Well, I guess it could be considered funny, but for me it was annoying. ‘it’s just a kids movie’, most would say, but I believe that within your fictional world you must be able to provide certain rules… this one was just creepy, with cars with no arms building cities and roads and exploiting other species of vehicles (species being the key word, as in they’re not equally intelligent life forms, but rather as animals, yuck!).

  • http://mattrolls.blogspot.com Matthew Morse

    As for that story in which aliens assume cars are the dominant lifeform, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a throwaway line to that effect. The Ford Prefect was a model of car in England. When the character Ford is first introduced, his name is explained with, “The information he had gathered had led him to choose the name ‘Ford Prefect’ as being nicely inconspicuous.” The joke is probably a little too obscure for us Americans, but it was there.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if some other story had developed the idea more fully, but for me, pretty much everything goes back to Hitchhiker’s.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    No, it’s not *Hitchhiker’s.* Ford’s choice of his name has nothing to do with mistaking the dominant lifeform on Earth, at least that we know of. (We don’t know what led to his mistake.) There could be a lot of reasons he thought that “Ford Prefect” would be inconspicuous that have nothing to do with thinking cars are sentient.

    The story I’m thinking of is something far more recent. It was definitely NOT a novel: it was a short story. And it’s not just a passge or a throwaway line — the whole story is about this idea. It may have been in either *Analog* or *Asimov’s* magazine within the last few years.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “this one was just creepy, with cars with no arms building cities and roads and exploiting other species of vehicles (species being the key word, as in they’re not equally intelligent life forms, but rather as animals, yuck!).”

    Well, isn’t that the case with us humans? We’re meat-based lifeforms who exploit other meat-based lifeforms. I mean, obviously you should feel free to be creeped out by whatever creeps you out, but are you creeped out by humans riding horses?

    Not that I’m defending *Cars*…

  • Miguel

    Hmm… in the Cars universe, I’d think of all the four wheel vehicles as different races of the same species, including the tractors. Or is it a comment on slavery of fellow humans/vehicles?

    As for the blimp and the helicopter, I honestly don’t know what the hell they were. Were they intelligent? Can they speak? We don’t know.

  • Drave

    Wasn’t Pixar making a bad movie supposed to be one of the signs of the apocalypse?

  • http://beerdiary.firedrake.org/reviews/ Roger

    There’s a consistent rumour that Cars was Pixar’s contractual obligation film, the one they had to sell before they could be free agents again. Any verification?

  • Miguel

    I doubt that was the case, as Lassetter himself was in charge of the project.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    What, Lasserter can’t make a bad movie? I think he’s just proven that he can.

  • bracyman

    Regarding the story with the aliens, I know that I read that too, and that this is not it, but there’s a poem called “Autogeddon” that has a few lines about aliens mistaking humans for power cells in cars. But I remember a short story and it sounds vaguely Bradburian to me.

    On another note, I had heard somewhere that “Cars” was Pixar’s last movie for Disney, but Pixar believed they had already finished their contract for 5 feature films (Disney apparently insisted that Toy Story 2 didn’t count). The rumor I heard made it seem like “Cars” was built to suck just out of spite.

  • Danielle

    In “Hitchhiker’s Guide” the movie, Arthur meets Ford by saving him from being hit by a car, which Ford is attempting to greet because he thinks cars are the dominant lifeform on Earth, or something like that.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “which Ford is attempting to greet because he thinks cars are the dominant lifeform on Earth,”

    But that is definitely NOT in the book. And I am ABSOLUTELY thinking of a short story I read in, I think, either *Analog* or *Asimov’s* magazine some time within the last few years. I would bet the rent money that it wasn’t written by Bradbury, either.

  • Otto Parts

    Haven’t seen it, but I’ll toss this in for good measure…I know folks that work at Pixar (they’re across the Bay) and the open secret around the studio was that this was the movie that wouldn’t do as well as the others (artistically, critically or financially). The screening for Pixar employees was apparently met with the sounds of crickets and no hands clapping.

  • Miguel

    Of course Lassetter can make a bad movie, I was trying to say it’s not bad because it was just a contractual obligation. It meant more than that for Pixar, so much that Lassetter himself was the one behind it… it was just a bad idea that did not work as well as they thought it would

  • Breena

    “Southbound on the Freeway” by May Swenson presents the idea you’re talking about, though it’s a poem instead of a short story.

  • David C

    It really does seem like a movie that, judging by what I’ve read and seen about Pixar and their creative process, should never have gotten past the brainstorming phase.

    It’s the fundamental confusion about the nature of *Cars*’ animated world that strikes me as the sort of mistake Pixar doesn’t make normally.

    Ah well, it’s hard to think of many great filmmakers who *don’t* make a stinker or two over their careers, and Lasseter’s no exception, it seems. I’m sure we’ll see more and better from him.

  • MisterBadIdea

    For the record, the movie you wanted to watch was called The Brave Little Toaster, and near the end of it there’s a legitimately haunting scene where broken cars lay about in a junkyard and lament their sad ends as they await death by car crusher. I have many, many fond memories of that movie.

  • the7ofSwords

    You need to go back and re-read “Hitchhiker’s”.

    I’m sure that’s not the story you’re thinking of, but it is pretty clear that Ford DID mistake cars as the dominant life-form. It’s also mentioned in the radio play. (Which was the original, of course.)

    Also, I remember reading an interview with Douglas Adams where he discussed the fact that the editors for the American version of the book wanted to change that, because most Americans would never have heard of the “oddly-named little automobile.” And in the French version, they actually changed the name to “Ford Escort”. (Perhaps they should have done so for the U.S. version, as well – although I don’t think the American Ford Escort was on the market until some time AFTER “Hitchhiker’s” was aired or published in the states.)

    Ah, here…

    … from Wikipedia (yes, I know, it’s not a REAL encyclopedia, I’ve heard all the whingeing): “Although Ford had taken great care to blend into Earth society, he had “skimped a bit on his preparatory research”, and thought that the name “Ford Prefect” would be “nicely inconspicuous”. Adams later clarified in an interview that Ford “had simply mistaken the dominant life form”. The Ford Prefect was, in fact, a line of inexpensive automobiles manufactured in the United Kingdom in the 1950s. This was expanded on somewhat in the film version, where Ford is nearly run over when trying to greet a car, an actual Ford Prefect. He is saved by Arthur and, in the film version of events at least, this is how the pair meet.

    As far as the movie “Cars” goes… I agree that this was certainly NOT Pixar’s best work. (Personally, I reserve that honour for “The Incredibles”.) However, I think a lot of people are thinking about it too much. Not every film has to include some-earth-shattering revelation, or commentary on the existential dilemmas of humanity. Ostensibly this IS a kids film, after all. (And I saw it with a group of five children, aged from 5 to 13, and they all loved it.)

    The thing I most took away from it, though, and the only real point the film had to share, was that times change, places change, but people are people. (Even when they’re cars.) Secondarily, of course, was the old lesson about slowing down and stopping to smell the roses, yadda, yadda, yadda.

    There were definitley cringe-worthy moments, but over-all I don’t think it was a bad film. It just wasn’t that great. I guess the best you could say is that it was “cute”. Part of the problem, too, is that Pixar has set a pretty high standard for themselves in the past, and when the bar’s that high, you’re going to miss it from time to time.

    Oh, and am I the only one who felt the urge to take a driving vacation in the Great American West? I haven’t been out that way for many years, but it reminded me of a trip my family took when I was a teen-ager. Of course, with Gasoline prices, distances, and the general state of things in the world at large, I don’t see that happening in any case…

    Just my two coppers.

    7

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “You need to go back and re-read “Hitchhiker’s”.”

    No, I don’t. :-> If you’d like to post the excerpt from the novel of HGTTG that contains the line about Ford mistaking cars for the dominant lifeform on Earth, please feel free. It is NOT in the American version of the novel. That’s what I said. Adams may have said this is the reason, it may be in the radio show, it may be in the movie, but it is not in the novel, for whatever reason. Which is all I asserted.

  • http://leftwingfox.blogspot.com Left_Wing_Fox

    Erf, to pull the discussion off HHGTTG “canon” here;

    Perhaps you might have been thinking of another cartoon? What on Earth? By Les Drew and Kaj Pindal took this idea, a report by martians scouts on the “dominant” life form of earth.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    No, no, no! What I am thinking of it absolutely, guaranteed, most definitely a new short SF story I read within the last few years. I swear. I promise.

  • the7ofSwords

    The quote from the book is:

    —– —–

    “He had made one careless blunder though, because he had skimped a bit on his preparatory research. The information he had gathered had led him to choose the name “Ford Prefect” as being nicely inconspicuous.”

    —– —–

    This is supposed to be an indication that he mistook the dominant life-form on Earth. Douglas Adams later made a clarification for anyone who didn’t get the joke (which was mostly anyone outside the U.K.)

    He doesn’t spell it out, because having to explain a joke spoils the joke.

    Growing up in the U.S., I didn’t get the joke the first time I read HHGG when I was 12. But after talking to someone who’d visited England and had experience with a car called a Ford Prefect (and having a “Hey! That’s the guy in Hitchhiker’s Gude!” moment), and then re-reading the book some time later, I understood what was meant, and got a bit of a chuckle out of it.

    So you’re right that it’s not clearly stated that Arthur had mistaken cars for the dominant life-form on Earth, however it IS indicated in the subtext of the joke – but went over most people’s heads. (I guess that’s why Adams later said it hadn’t been a very good joke.) It’s just supposed to be understood.

    7

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    I disagree that that is the only interpretation. I though this was funny when I read the book — I mean, I understood that a Ford Prefect was a kind of car and I found it funny that he would name himself after a car. But I don’t think that the way that bit is worded necessarily automatically implies WHY Ford believed that name would be inconspicuous — there could be LOTS of reasons why he made that mistake. Whatever Adams’ intention was, there ARE other ways to read that that still make it funny.

  • http://www.myspace.com/acmike69 mike

    You guys have waaay overanalyzed this film. I read the critique first, expecting the worst, but thought the film was great. Here’s why: The ripped-off Doc Hollywood storyline was ripped off from a half-dozen other coming-of-age, young-punk-learns-his-lesson storylines, but it’s still a good story, even if you KNOW the ending, and being a kids movie, it tells this age-old feel-good story in a fresh fun way that kids will like. As for the adult humor, the “flashing” headlights, Luigi giving the middle finger to the other pit crew, and some other adult humor, maybe it is too much, but kids just won’t get it, and the adults who go to watch it get a chuckle. The tractors were cows? Clever. Besides, All animated flicks with animals/objects as people always have some non-sentient characters, even if it is illogical. Also, I really didn’t see the prison rape thing at all. C’mon, that’s really stretching it. It just is shocking and hurts when he gets a hook up his tail…er bumper. And the fact that it was shown several times in different settings confirms that. And as for the cars being people, I thought it was cool. Look around at any toy store, you’ll see cars, insects, animals, and other inanimate objects that look like people. Look at toddler’s toys for christ’s sake. They are all humanized. So how is this different from bugs, animals, insects, etc. being turned into talking people? It isn’t. What about Herbie the Love Bug? What about the Transformers? They’re cars! They’re people! They’re Robots! Big Deal!
    I just viewed the movie as an alternate universe. Of course cars without opposible thumbs can’t build buildings, but neither can bugs and animals wear clothes, as they do in EVERY animated film. (except Watership Down). Enjoy the movie for what it is. No need for creepiness. And the amination was awesome…

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    “You guys have waaay overanalyzed this film.”

    This is Web site devoted to film criticism. We’re *supposed* to be overanalyzing movies.