If there's one thing on which audiences have been able to depend in recent years, it has been the output of the computer animation studio Pixar. The company's logo, a quizzical Anglepoise lamp, has become cinema's equivalent of the Kite Mark: from the two Toy Story masterpieces to the likes of The Incredibles and Finding Nemo, there has scarcely been a wobble in the quality-control department. And now we have Cars, the seventh Pixar feature, and the first that is less than roadworthy. The film is a baffling combination of fogeyish moralising and technical excellence: it's as though someone installed a clapped-out engine in a pristine chassis, and then neglected to add a steering wheel.
Cars is set in an alternative world populated solely by automobiles; even the insects buzzing around the strip lights are miniature winged Volkswagens. And the thousands of enthusiasts who cram into the stadium to watch the spiffy red racing car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) are all four-wheeled - they honk their horns and flash their headlights in support, and rock up and down on their tyres to create a Mexican wave.
Lightning is heading for California, where he will compete to win the Piston Cup. But en route, he rolls off his transporter and roars into the dusty town of Radiator Springs, tearing up the tarmac in the process. This incurs the wrath of the town's judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), who orders that Lightning must repave the main road before he can leave.
The longer Lightning stays in Radiator Springs, the more enamoured he grows of its assortment of rootin', tootin', salt-of-the-earth, clichéd eccentrics - sorry, I meant lovable individuals. There's Mater, a cheery old tow truck (voiced by the US comedian Larry the Cable Guy, a kind of redneck Ali G), Fillmore the spaced-out VW van (George Carlin) and a sleek Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt), who delivers the film's message about how, with the arrival of the interstate, small-town America became the land that time forgot. "Cars didn't drive to make great time," she says, reflecting on the good ol' days. "They drove to have a great time."
Each resident of Radiator Springs has a life lesson to dispense to Lightning. Mater teaches him the value of friendship, while Doc invokes his own victories on the track to warn that "there's a whole lot more to racing than winning" - advice that sounds pretty feeble compared to The Incredibles, which raised the thorny issue of how children can feel unique when they're taught that everyone is special. Once Lightning has absorbed all these teachings, he is equipped to leave town and bring to the speedway circuit some of the touchy-feely wisdom he has accrued.
If you come out in a rash at the thought of Thornton Wilder or Frank Capra, then Cars will be an especially bumpy ride for you. But it isn't the home-spun corniness that disappoints so much as the arrogant disregard by the director, John Lasseter, for the nuts and bolts of entertainment. Entire scenes consist of parked vehicles musing nostalgically on the bygone romanticism of driving. This focus is unlikely to engage anyone not of pensionable age, and the film uses moral distinctions that could be grasped by a pre-schooler. Ambition, city life and money are bad. Small towns, unsophisticated philosophies and pre-1960 America are dandy. It is the nightmare scenario we have been dreading - the revenge of Forrest Gump.
All this sermonising about our collective lost innocence would be innocuous if Cars weren't produced and distributed by Disney (which now owns Pixar), and if merchandise from the film weren't being used to lure young children into McDonald's. So much for small-town values. The only element of Cars not in need of an urgent service is the animation. The vehicles themselves are so uncharismatic that they could make Herbie, the VW from The Love Bug, look like Montgomery Clift. But there are some sweeping landscape shots worthy of John Ford, and a poetic sequence featuring tractors dozing in the silvery moonlight. Yet these are fleeting pleasures, and scant compensation for the appearance in the UK cast of Jeremy Clarkson as Lightning's agent. Cars? I'd rather walk. lGruelling but rewarding odyssey about a dying man's quest for hospital treatment in Bucharest.
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