Cars (PG)

Pixar falls asleep at the wheel
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The Independent Culture

Pixar's cartoons have always been financed by Disney, but the smaller company has kept its creative autonomy - and it hasn't been too difficult to tell Pixar's films apart from Disney's own in-house productions. Over the past decade, Pixar made colossally successful computer animations - Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles - while Disney cranked out some of its most forgettable ever fare, all of it drawn in traditional 2D fashion: does anyone remember Brother Bear or Atlantis: The Lost Empire? Disney's panicky response to this slump was to send 2D cartoons to the scrapyard, and to attempt some Pixar-style digital animation, as if that would solve all its problems.

But as glorious as Pixar's cutting-edge visuals can be, a wider gulf between its recent output and Disney's has been in the quality of the screenplays. Toy Story was simply far better written than Atlantis, and it would have been a hit whether it had been brought to life using plasticene models or a flick book.

Which brings us, regrettably, to Cars, the new film from the director of Toy Story and A Bug's Life - and the first Pixar animation to have a script that might not pass its MOT.

As you might have gathered, it's a cartoon about cars, specifically racing cars. One of these, voiced by Owen Wilson, is Lightning McQueen, a cocksure, self-centred rookie who has to travel across the country for a championship race. On the way, he accidentally rips the tarmac off the main road in a dusty little town, somewhere near the middle of Route 66, and he's forced to stay there until he's repaired it. That's where the screenplay, co-written by director John Lasseter, bumps into its first pothole. Isn't there a basic flaw in a film about a racing car which has him stuck in neutral for an hour?

A bigger question is, does the movie have to be about cars at all? Like 20th Century Fox's Robots, Cars is set in a parallel universe where humans don't exist. But unlike the Heath Robinson fairground of Robots, Cars' parallel universe is exactly like our own, except for the minor discrepancy that its inhabitants have mouths below their radiators, and eyes on their windscreens. And it is a minor discrepancy. In one scene, Sally the Porsche tells Lightning that she used to be an attorney in Los Angeles, and the mind boggles at the thought. The heroes of Toy Story and A Bug's Life could never claim to be Californian lawyers: they were toys and bugs. But the cast of Cars are just humans with a respray. If you close your eyes and listen to the dialogue, for long periods you can imagine that it's a live-action film.

Then there's the matter of what kind of live-action film it would be. Scrape off the decals, and Cars is a sentimental yarn about how enriching it is to downshift from the status anxiety of the city and to settle into life in the slow lane in a neighbourly town. It's a genre which is much loved by Hollywood executives who never quite get around to moving out of the city themselves. With Randy Newman's most syrupy ever song on the soundtrack, Cars appears to be intended for that minuscule audience of viewers who are old enough to welcome a lesson in the importance of friendship over ambition, but young enough not to have seen Doc Hollywood, Local Hero, The Majestic or any of the other films which have taught that lesson already. It's not terrible, by any means. Despite the swollen running time, it's a bright, warm, well-made cartoon. But nobody saw Toy Story and said, "Hey ho, another film about a cowboy doll who's usurped in his owner's affections by an astronaut action figure who believes he's flesh and blood," whereas Cars is barely in second gear before you know precisely which road it's going down.

Even the animation helps to make Cars seem too close to a live-action film for it to win any trophies as a cartoon. The characters may resemble toy cars rather than full-sized automobiles, but the way they gleam and reflect their exquisitely detailed surroundings is technically superior to anything Pixar or their competitors have produced before. It's almost photorealistic, which is surely defeating the point. Cartoons derive their magic from not looking the same as the world around us, whereas Cars takes you to the level where you no longer gasp at how phenomenal it is that every single brick in a garage wall has its own individual colour and texture. It looks just like a brick wall. Lasseter might as well have pointed a camera at the real thing.