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Cars
Reviewed by Martin Thomas, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   John Lasseter (director)
Genre:   Computer Animated Talking Car Movie
Released:   June 9, 2006
Review Date:   June 21, 2006
Audience Rating:   G
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

I call it the curse of Brad Bird.

The guy worked as a director on the most successful animated television series of all time, The Simpsons. Then he directed The Iron Giant, possibly the greatest traditionally animated feature film of all time, equal to Old Yeller and The Lou Gehrig Story in its ability to make grown men openly weep. Warner Bros. was shutting down their animation department around his ears, but he managed to finish this masterpiece anyway — and the studio rewarded him by releasing it with the worst promotion campaign imaginable. Not surprisingly, it died at the box office but slowly picked up steam by word of mouth. Then when Warner Bros. had a chance to use its underground popularity to make it a huge success on DVD, they dropped the ball again with yet another ad campaign that made it look like any generic, Saturday-morning cartoon. (Showing the robot firing missiles with the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" playing in the background. Really!)

It's no wonder he was gun-shy when he signed on with Pixar to create The Incredibles . . . the greatest 3D animated movie ever!

I must admit that Toy Story 2 is one of only maybe five movies in the world that I think are perfect. Everything's timed like clockwork, not a single joke falls flat, and it defies the odds by greatly improving on its predecessor, an already beloved classic. Finding Nemo runs a damn close second. But what gives The Incredibles the edge, in my opinion, is its ambition to reach further. Like maybe no animated feature before, it speaks directly to parents without ignoring the generations in between. It dares to be dark without ever losing the audience.

What? Oh, the curse I was talking about? Well, if you look back at the two years since The Incredibles was released, there has not been a single good 3D computer-animated movie to follow it. Don't believe me? Take a look at the list:

Kinda long, huh? Oh, and please don't say it. "My kids liked it, and I thought it was cute." Spare me! While some of them may have been mildly amusing, most were underdeveloped exercises in futility and NONE were as good as either of the Shreks or even one of Pixar's lesser efforts.

Luckily for us, Pixar has finally finished Cars, so finally the curse can be lifted and the locusts can swarm back to wherever they came from. Right?

When the first teaser for Cars appeared at the beginning of The Incredibles, it was somewhat . . . underwhelming. With the highly probable dissolution of the Disney/Pixar partnership on the horizon, there was much speculation that Pixar just squirted Cars out to fulfill its final contractual obligation. Sucks for the audience, but with such an impressive body of work under their belt, who could really blame Pixar for phoning one in?

Having seen Cars a few days ago, I'm here to report that they did put in a full effort on it . . . which makes me almost feel worse about not liking it very much. I expect I'll be in the minority on this, and I didn't really think it was a bad movie, but it's easily my least favorite from Pixar.

I suppose there are several inherent factors that were destined to keep me distant from it.

#1: I Like Cars and All, But . . .

Is NASCAR for real? Seriously, you can come clean with me. By Occom's Razor, it's a lot easier for me to believe that Ashton Kutcher put you all up to this as a huge practical joke on me than it is for me to swallow that so many of you actually enjoy watching cars make left turns for 100 laps. I just don't get it, which may be why much of the charm of Cars was lost on me.

The director, John Lasseter, is a real automobile aficionado, which may explain why Cars feels self-indulgent. Especially with the staggering amount of car puns tossed off:

"Ahhh . . . it's got that new movie smell."

"Life is a journey. Enjoy the trip."

"Rev up!"

"Get ready to roll."

"Two miles to the finish line."

"Our Cars Speak for Themselves."

"Gear up . . . "

"From the manufacturers of The Incredibles and Finding Nemo."

"The All-New 2006, Cars."

And those are all just from the taglines on the posters. Now imagine me throwing those at you for the next two hours. Yes, the movie is a full two hours — two hours plus if you count all the bits going on during the end credits.

It's like the editor got stuck in traffic. (Sorry.) I guess I'm just not that into cars . . . but then again I'm not into fish either, so maybe that argument doesn't . . . hold . . . um, water. (Sorry again. After awhile you can't help it.)

#2: I Am So Over the Redneck Revolution

One of the most popular jokes in Cars is a scene where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the tow truck, Mater, go cow tipping, and the cows are tractors. It's the kind of quick gag that peaks once it's spoken and you initially see the tractors, but here they feel compelled to act it out. Several times. And then revisit the joke a couple more times later in the movie.

Metaphorically speaking, I really don't like the way the whole cow-tipping ideology has split our country. We're divided into those who believe cow-tipping to be nothing more than an urban legend and others who claim it's a fun way to spend a Saturday night. I find myself in the third column of people who don't give a rat's ass.

I can admit to watching plenty episodes of MTV's Jackass, looking forward to Larry the Cable Guy's random appearances on the radio back in the day, and being a lifelong fan of The Beverly Hillbillies. But when "NASCAR dads" went from being a backhanded euphemism to an accepted political demographic during the 2000 presidential election, I started to sense an ominous disturbance in the Force. I know it's rooted in our culture's backlash against political correctness. But also it parallels what happened in the 1970s with African-Americans: the rise in prominence of the overlooked underclass — pop-culturally, anyway.

But then after the full-on assault of Toby Keith's latest war ballads, Jeff Gordon's face plastered over every item in the frozen foods section, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour becoming the Blue Collar TV series, and back-to-back movies like The Dukes of Hazzard and Daltry Calhoun, I realized it's nothing more than the latest fad co-opted by the machine for squeezing more money out of us. I am officially over-saturated. As much as I was initially looking forward to My Name is Earl, by the time it actually aired on NBC I was already done with it.

#3: I'm Immune to the O Factor

Quick! Name two movies in which Owen Wilson plays characters that aren't alike.

Okaaay, how about ONE movie where Owen Wilson doesn't play himself .

. . . Well, maybe we'll come back to that later.

I know you people love him anyway, and I like him too . . . in concept. Which is basically my way of saying in small doses.

I loved his cameo in The Cable Guy and he was my favorite character in Meet The Parents. It just seems to be whenever he's headlining a movie that I find myself checking my watch more than usual despite his laid back, off-kilter charm. He's not like his fellow 'Frat Pack' members, Vince Vaugh and Jack Black, whose brains are connected to chaos-fueled improbability drives. They're able to keep a flick a moving just because you can't imagine what they're going to say or do next. With Owen Wilson, after 15 or 20 minutes you've pretty much seen everything in his bag of tricks. By the time you see a second movie of his, you can pretty much write his parts in your head. The only range between him as Lightning McQueen and the serial killer he played in The Minus Man is the degree in which he's willing to raise his voice.

But Cars is an ensemble piece, and one of the best bits of casting is Paul Newman as crusty old Doc, the town's judge, and Bonnie Hunt as Sally, the Porsche who came to live in Radiator Springs to escape her previous life as an attorney living in the fast lane (don't start groaning just yet).

Rounding out the wacky cast are:

(Tow) 'Mater,' the wrecker tow truck. Larry the Cable Guy takes his dumb, white trash routine up (or down) a notch, but does get to walk away with all the best lines.

Filmore the stoner VW van. George Carlin reprises his 1987 role as the hippie from Outrageous Fortune, and even recycles the same joke he got a big laugh from back then: "Boy, the '60s sure were good to you." Anybody but me remember that?

Luigi and Guido, the Italian Fiat and forklift. Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni bring these characters to life as such archaic Italian stereotypes I expected one of them to start working an organ grinder with a monkey while the other rolled barrels at a gorilla.

Ramon the custom-painted Chevy low-rider. Cheech Marin furthers his mission to insure that the stereotype of the Mexican vato lives on the minds of the coming generations. Seriously, is he the only Latino voice actor listed in the phone book? How Antonio Banderas got to be in Shrek 2 is a mystery.

Flo the sassy Motorama show car. Jennifer Lewis brings it on home as the most important cast member, the sassy black woman. True, she barely gets any screen time and says nothing memorable, but the rules make it very clear that you cannot have a movie full of ethnic caricatures without including a sassy black woman. Who needs the headache of the EEOC climbing up their backs?

Harv the Jewish sports agent. Jeremy Piven does it again! And again and again. It's not enough that Harv is exactly like his character Ari from the HBO series Entourage, but I just saw him last week in a new movie called Keeping Up With the Steins, and he's the exact same character again.

Mack the Super-Liner truck. What would a Pixar film be without the voice of John Ratzenberger? Doesn't matter, because there isn't one! And if you didn't already know that, well, there's a protracted bit in the end credits where Ratzenberger himself elbows you in the ribs repeatedly to remind you. There's something eerie about it that makes me feel like it was originally planned as a final goodbye.

In the same way that there was no excuse for the aliens in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds looking so much like the aliens in Independence Day some nine years later, there is so excuse for Cars to so resemble the longest Chevron commercial, ever. I'm sure Tex Avery's corpse could've submitted more unique designs for these vehicles.

I suppose it's a minor quibble that the casting wasn't more creative when the real problem was that the characters themselves aren't more creative. While they all have their particular quirks (Ramon airbrushes himself with new flames and gang symbols for every scene), it's rare that they do anything truly endearing or even memorable.

This One's For the Kids

No studio more than Pixar has been able to consistently strike that perfect balance needed for a successful family film that speaks to adults as much as children. Usually when a movie is dubbed a "kid's movie" it really means they blew it and the script was too dumb. After all, why would you purposely make something that would not appeal to half your potential audience? Especially the half with all the buying power?

Somehow with Cars the formula got skewed. It comes off as an adult movie that was written for children, resolving all its conflicts with naïve solutions. It focuses on the cynical side of professional sports, freeway construction and the re-examining of life ambitions, but the happy ending it demands is to restore the town of Radiator Springs to its glory days of the fabulous '50s — a time of no interstate bypass, booming business, jukeboxes and segregated drinking fountains. Okay, I'm not 100% about that last part, but come on. With such an anti-progress message what do you think the next logical progression of this story would've been?

If RevSF contributor Martin Thomas were a car, he’d be . . . a sassy black woman!

 
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