Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Film Review | Cars (2006)

Despite the lukewarm reception I gave more recent Pixar offering Cars 2, I've actually been looking forward to revisiting the original film for some time. Cars is a film that has in the past pulled me in two different directions: on one hand, it boasts one of the most impressive voice casts of any Pixar film, with cinematic heavyweights rubbing shoulders (or should that be bumpers?) with contemporary Hollywood talents; on the other, it's a film which aesthetically feels the most "kiddie" of all the studio's works, perhaps surprisingly even more so than Toy Story. It's a bipartite structure which frustratingly sat no easier with me on a fresh viewing.

Cars focuses on Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a talented rookie racing car determined to win a lucrative sponsorship deal with fuel company Dinoco in order to elevate himself to superstardom. En route to California to compete in the final of the Piston Cup, McQueen becomes stranded in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs where he gets to know a variety of characters, including the simple-minded Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) and gruff Doc Hudson (Paul Newman).

From an artistic perspective, Cars is inferior to the studio's earlier works, never matching the beautiful scenery of Finding Nemo or striking visuals of The Incredibles. The vehicular characters lack a great deal of the warmth and heart of many of Pixar's other creations, giving the Cars universe a layer of artificiality that takes too hefty a portion of the film's near two hour running time to penetrate.

The voice cast is indeed impressive, but is utilised to varying degrees of success. Wilson's vocal chords suit Lightning McQueen just as perfectly as Hanks and Allen fit Woody and Buzz, but his performance is only perfunctory and never memorable. Newman is unsurprisingly the casting highlight as Doc Hudson; it's just a shame that the character's story arc feels both underdeveloped and somewhat clichéd. Elsewhere, Bonnie Hunt's Sally is forgettable, the talents of the likes of George Carlin and Michael Keaton are almost entirely wasted, and Larry The Cable Guy's Mater wins the prize for most irritating Pixar character ever created, grating as he does in every scene.

It's a shame that Cars is such an underwhelming experience, as nestled around two thirds into the film's running time is a segment which reveals a glimpse of the true Pixar spirit of film-making when Radiator Springs' past as a bustling stopover on Route 66 is brought to life through a charming and emotional montage. This is surely the film director John Lasseter initially set out to make: an epitaph to the pure and simple pleasures of smalltown USA, and a love story to the ever-eroding cultural heritage of a country too quick to bulldoze and tarmac over both its history and geography. It's a sequence which gives Cars a much-needed boost, far more effective than the high-octane race sequences (never nearly as exciting as you would expect them to be) that bookend the film. Somewhere along the line, Lasseter allowed the heart of his story to become overcrowded with unsophisticated artifice. Maybe that's Cars' biggest failing. Or maybe talking automobiles inhabiting their own version of our world was never more than just an okay idea in the first place.


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