3 stars


9th August 2006

Time was, a completely CG film was a cinematic rarity, something that could be cherished and enjoyed as a genuinely original experience, a piece of work that represented the pinnacle of technology in the industry and could be embraced in the same way our parents and grandparents first took to regular cel-based animation. These days however, we're lucky if a fortnight passes by without another CG film coming and going - animation is in danger of losing its magic. Pixar have done their best to distance themselves from the rabble and continue enthralling kids and adults alike, and although Cars still sees them streets ahead of the competition, neither does it see them firing on all cylinders. Even the best drivers need to look in their rear-view mirrors sometimes, and with competition hotting up, Pixar will need to kick into a higher gear if their latest picture is any indication.

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) is a hotrod racing car and an aspiring champion, a big city talent with an ego too big for his glove box. When the annual Piston Cup event ends in a three-way tie, Lightning must travel to California for a tie-breaker race in one week's time, but falls out the back of his transporter Mack (the trusty John Ratzenberger) on the way and accidentally ends up trashing a backwater town called Radiator Springs. Under the duress of town elder Doc Hudson (Newman), Lightning is forced to endure community service until his debt has been repayed. After a while, he becomes attached to town attorney Sally (Hunt) and goofy tow-truck, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and starts to realise that winning isn't always everything. It's your classic Pixar fish-out-of-water story, imbued with the same warmth and family values we've come to expect over the years.

Where else could Pixar really explore? In just over ten years, they've delved into the toybox, to the bottom of the garden, in the bedroom cupboard and under the ocean waves to get their inspiration, but the premise of John Lasseter's latest felt like a backfire from the start. It's easy for us to imagine toys or fish having fun adventures when we're not looking, but it's an altogether bigger leap for us to invest in a talking car, much more one with a personality (the only way Lightning and friends can emote is with their large windscreen eyes and grotesquely large tongues that emerge from their bumpers). Anthromorphizing an automobile is an awkward concept at the best of times - how much can a character with no hands really do? - and you're constantly aware of the limitations that Pixar are up against. The first time you see a character perform a three-point turn just to face another, you'll realise this ain't no Toy Story. You might be familiar with the story, too - it's basically a straight up rip-off of Doc Hollywood.

Pixar movies have always felt timeless - opposed to, say, the Shrek movies from Dreamworks, the gags are purely character and situation based - but Cars represents the Disney-owned company's first foray into the world of pop-culture references. There are only a few ('The Jay Limo Show' and a last reel appearance from Michael Schumacher), but they sit awkwardly amongst Pixar's more traditional comedy, which it has to be said, is still as strong as ever. All ages are catered for; kids will get a real kick out of the tractor tipping scenes, adults will catch the references that fly over the kids' heads ("Freebird!") and petrol-heads will appreciate the sensational race sequences - the subject matter might not be for everyone, but there's no denying that Pixar are pushing the technological envelope as fast and hard as it can presently be pushed. Colourful, frequently astounding and often scarily photo-real, this is as beautiful as animation gets, period.

Cars uses the old 'winning isn't everything' axiom to good effect, but perhaps Ferris Bueller said it best when he remarked: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it." Pixar would do well to heed his advice and take a look over their shoulder; they're not involved in a one horse race any more. While it would be impossible not to recommend Cars, it's far from being their best and shows a few cracks in the tried-and-tested winning formula that's served them so well up until now - most characters feel like cut-and-shut jobs of previous Pixar creations. There's still gas in the tank and a powerful engine under the hood, but Pixar just have to make sure they are driving in the right direction next time around.

More:  Comedy  Animation  Family  Pixar  Cars
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