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 peculiarly, 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?

see also:
Cars 2 (review)

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