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Friday, June 23, 2006

Cars (2006)

Pixar films tend to walk that fine line between kid movies and adult movies. Films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story contain enough adult humor and enough colorful characters to delight both children and their parents. Cars, Pixar’s latest offering, is more heavily aimed towards adults in the audience than ever. It’s also a disturbing film in a number of ways.

Racecar Lightning McQueen is stranded in a small town on Route 66 on the way to his big race in Los Angeles. There he meets an array of colorful characters, he learns the meaning of friendship and….oh, well, you must know what happens in the end. There are some great voices: Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Mario Andretti, George Carlin, Michel Keaton and Bob Costas to name a few. The animation is some of the best I have ever seen. That said, Cars isn’t running on all four cylinders. It blithely mocks minorities, small-town folks and blue-collar workers while smugly pretending to teach us a lesson about "heart." Not to mention the fat that, at two hours, it’s a little long for even the most focused child.

Some critics have knocked Cars for being light on humor and pop culture references. Personally, I thought the humor was much too subtle for most kids. There were a few gags that had me giggling in my seat: the NASCAR with the logo for “Hostile Takeover Bank” painted on the side; the bumper sticker that says “Honk if your horn works”; oh, and how can we not smile at a lawyer car named Porsche? Cars makes subtle references to other films, including The Color of Money, The Fast and the Furious and Doc Hollywood; and the ending is just plain stolen from the 1962 Tony Richardson film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. All this cleverness aside, I noticed that I laughed a lot harder than my 4-year-old nephew—or many of the other kids for that matter.

The film manages to be unbearably broad and totally narrow-minded at the same time. There is an obnoxious smattering of ethnic stereotypes throughout, with no hint of character development. Don’t get me started on the simpering Italian Fiat or the one-note Latino low rider. Even George Carlin’s doped up hippie VW bus, while amusing, is a cheap joke that rapidly wears thin. The most insufferable of all is the presence of Larry the Cable Guy as a tow truck named Mater. In one fell swoop, Cars glorifies the blue-collar everyman while mocking him mercilessly. To put it simply, Cars can’t figure out what message it is trying to convey, and the result is a mixture of cynicism and half-hearted moralizing.

One of the big problems with this film is that cars are difficult objects to anthropomorphize. Furthermore, they all seem to live in a universe where there are no people or animals, only cars, trucks, tractors, and so on. While I realize that suspension of disbelief is important, I found the whole thing a little distracting. I’m sure that more than one kid left the theatre pestering their parents.

Little Bobby: Mommy, where did the cars come from?
Mommy: From factories, sweetheart.
LB: Who works in the factories?
M: Well, I guess other vehicles work in the factories…
LB: But who makes them?
M: Why don’t you ask your father?