The Golden Touch
Around the midpoint of
Cars, Pixar's new computer-animated feature, Lightning McQueen,
a stock-car racing star, and Sally, the girl he has met in the little
town of Radiator Springs, drive into the countryside and look out
over a sweeping desert landscape. The idea is that Lightning, obsessed
with fame and winning big races, has never before paused to take
in the beauty of the world around him.
That "natural" beauty is, of course, computer-generated,
and if there is a single living thing depicted in that scene, even
a tree, it's not conspicuous. (Lightning and Sally pass among some
evergreens earlier in their drive, and the trees really stick out;
I can't recall any advanced plant or animal life elsewhere in Cars.)
The two characters admiring the barren landscape are not only computer-generated
but are themselves machinesa bright-red race car and a gleaming
Porsche, cars that can think and talk. A film synthetic in every
detail is admonishing us to relish the natural world.
There is, in other words, a subtle discrepancy between what the
movie is telling us and what we're seeing on the screen. That's
not much of a problem, in the movies or any other medium; artists
bridge such gaps all the time, irony being the tool of choice. Here
it may be tempting to believe that John Lasseter, Pixar's creative
arbiter and Cars' director, has his tongue at least slightly
in cheek; some of the buttes in the distance have contours suspiciously
similar to those of automobile fenders. It's clear, though, that
such features of the landscape are there less as a joke than as
a way to make the world on the screen seem more hospitable to its
population of talking cars and other machines. In Cars, Lasseter
asks us to take all too seriously both Lightning and his transformation
(today a selfish hot rod; tomorrow an upstanding family sedan).
As a result, he makes his hero ridiculous and his film a frustrating
Cars is not contemptibly bad in the manner of so many recent
computer-generated features. The $70 million that the movie supposedly
cost is all on the screen; to my eyes, the animation is flawless,
on its own photo-realistic terms, and sometimes, as in the night
scenes near the start, powerfully atmospheric. The movie-star voices
for the characters are mostly good, although it's too obvious that
they were recorded in a studio and not in the film's wide-open spaces.
But Cars is easily the worst of Pixar's features, crippled
throughout by the same suppressed awareness that Lasseter imposes
on the scene in which Lightning swoons over the desert's artificial
Lasseter, who did not direct the three Pixar features that preceded
Cars, even let himself be trapped inside what amounts to
a live-action script. Neither Lightning nor any of the other characters
need be automobiles; they could just as well be people, and all
of the story's events could easily have been translated into live
action. It would have been obvious then how bad the script is, how
packed with clichés, non sequiturs, and stereotypes, ethnic
Comedy can't save Cars, because there aren't enough jokes.
The film is full of quick cuts that encourage watching for sly gags,
but more often than not there's nothing to see but vehicles of some
kind, pretending to be people in mildly amusing ways. The gags that
accompany the closing titles are wittier than anything in the body
of the film.
If irony can close a gap between what's being said and what's being
shown, sentimentality always opens such a gap wider. There is sentimentality
aplenty in Cars. Lasseter was born in 1957, too late to remember
the days the film rhapsodizes aboutthe days when people went
for a drive, in long-gone makes like the Hudson Hornet, instead
of just driving to get someplace. We are always most nostalgic about
what we are too young to have experienced firsthand. (The film's
éminence grise, "Doc Hudson," won his trophy
races in 1951-53, a few years before Lasseter was born.) My father
was a Hudson dealer when I was a kid, and we rode the family Hudson
on drives into the country on Sunday afternoons. "Tiresome"
is the word that springs to mind when I think about those outings.
At least we listened to Bing Crosby on the radio; Cars can
do no better, as it evokes the good old days, than a damp Randy
It's difficult for me to believe that Lasseter would really like
to resurrect the time when driving from one city to another meant
winding through a lot of mostly dismal little towns. Well-planned
high-speed roadsthe autoroutes in France, for example, which
don't rip through city centers in the destructive American mannerenhance
the driving experience and make it easier to get to those small
towns that are, unlike Radiator Springs, actually worth visiting.
Lasseter's sentimentality finds its most peculiar expression at
the very heart of the movie's story, where he tries to blend his
genuine affection for cars with his equally genuine desire to make
movies that extol personal virtues. I know almost nothing about
NASCAR, but its races have never struck me as a likely venue for
lessons on friendship and caring and other qualities that Lasseter
admires. Cars does nothing to change my mind.
I've always assumed that many of the people in NASCAR's stands
come there in the hope of seeing a spectacular crashthe races,
lap after lap, are otherwise as boring as those long-ago Sunday
drivesand Cars, by offering several beautifully choreographed
pileups and spin-outs, does its best to satisfy any similar longings
in theater audiences. The villain car, Chick Hicks, causes a couple
of those crashes by attacking his competitors, for all the world
as if he were a charioteer in Ben-Hur. I don't know if such
viciousness would go unchallenged in a real NASCAR race, but the
movie shrugs off Hicks's quasi-homicidal behavior as requiring no
more than a caution flag, thus raising the question: what kind of
crazy "sport" is this, and why should we give a damn which
maniac comes out on top?
Lasseter had little choice but to retreat from the violence and
monotony of stock-car racing for much of Cars' running time
(an interminable hour and 57 minutesa Miyazaki length). Thus
the middle of the film, where Lightning McQueen absorbs life lessons
from the boobs and eccentrics who populate Radiator Springs. But
there is no getting away from a climactic race between Lightning
and Chick Hicks to break a tie for the Piston Cup, with a third
car thrown in, just as there is no getting away from using the race
as a showcase for Lightning's newly acquired sensitivity. Simply
having Lightning beat Hicks would have exposed the barrenness of
the racing milieu. Instead, Lasseter has Lightning deliberately
throw the racethere's no other word for itso that he
can push the third car, the soon-to-be-retired "The King,"
over the finish line ahead of him.
The King (one of several characters voiced by a real NASCAR driver,
in this case Richard Petty) has been disabled by one of Hicks's
attacks, but he has until this point been an incidental character.
There's no reason to care about him, and there's no visible reason
for Lightning to care so much about him that he gives up first place
and takes third instead. Lightning has, after all, been more than
willing to beat The King, on this and other occasions, and his rationale
for not beating him this time, that The King should be allowed to
finish his last race, rings hollow. Would the same be true if The
King had gone out on a blown tire?
Chick Hicks wins the Piston Cup, thanks to his attack on The King
and Lightning's baffling self-sacrifice. Cars asks us to
believe that race fans and corporate sponsors would turn their backs
on Hicks despite his victory. On the film's own termsthat
is, its presentation of Hicks's assaults as a naughty but acceptable
way to conduct oneself on the tracksuch an outcome is simply
not plausible. Here again, there's a discrepancy between Cars'
message and what it shows us on the screen: the coarse, seductive
glamour and razzle-dazzle of the world of professional stock-car
racing. The inhabitants of that world might hesitate for a moment
before cheering Chick Hicks, but cheer him they would. In stock-car
racing, as with big-budget Hollywood movies, winning is what matters.
In Cars, however, Lasseter and his colleagues ask their
audience to embrace the idea that winning isn't everything, that
friendship and fellowshipwhich the Pixar people evidently
enjoy in abdundancecount for a lot more. Should we believe,
then, that Cars' box-office performance its first weekend
was a matter of indifference at Emeryville? Cars finished
behind the first-weekend figures for both Finding Nemo and
The Incredibles, grossing about $60 million (not the $62.8
million originally reported) versus more than $70 million for each
of the earlier films. The reviewsthe more thoughtful reviews,
in particular, as opposed to the reviews written on autopilothave
been surprisingly skeptical. Cars will turn a profit, no
doubt, but the seeds of future failure have been sown in the nagging
disappointment that many people will feel, especially in the weak
Cars opened just after the consummation of Disney's $7.4
billion purchase of Pixar. I have to wonder if Pixar's new proprietors
in Burbank are still thrilled with their purchaseespecially
when they remember that Robert Iger's much-reviled predecessor as
CEO, Michael Eisner, resisted paying so much.
Shortly before Cars' release, Premiere magazine named
Lasseter and Steve Jobs, his boss at Pixar and now a board member
at Disney, as the most powerful people in Hollywood. Lasseter was
hailed repeatedly, when the Disney deal was announced and in the
months afterward, as a new Walt Disney. Lasseter has presided over
seven successful animated features, a string that Disney never matched;
but Walt was far more ambitious than Lasseter has proved to be.
Lasseter, shunning the difficulties of animating human characters,
has settled for making children's films filled with toys and bugs
and fish and automobileseach film more technically sophisticated
than the last, but each increasingly questionable as a story. The
Lasseter who made Cars most resembles the Walt Disney who
toward the end of his life made sentimental live-action wallows
like Follow Me, Boys! and The Happiest Millionaire.
One Pixar film stands apart from the rest: The Incredibles
(2004), directed by Brad Bird and far more Bird's film than Lasseter's.
There is in it none of Lasseter's sentimentality; there is instead
much greater risk-taking, in the animation of its human characters
especially. A trailer for a Bird-directed effort called Ratatouille,
the next Pixar feature, precedes the theatrical showings of Cars.
Ratatouille is, I gather, a project dropped into Bird's lap
after other people struggled with it. I found the trailer ominous.
The title character is a rat, living in a Parisian restaurant, and
the trailer shows him sampling a cheese cart, to the justified horror
of diners and server. Rats have almost never been made into cartoon
characters; they're filthy, disgusting animals, and people recoil
from them for good reason. In the trailer, another rat advises Ratatouille
to suppress the "gag reflex" so he can eat any disgusting
thing, as the second rat is cheerfully doing. Will audiences have
to suppress the "gag reflex" to sit through the film?
Perhaps Lasseter should have hired John Kricfalusi to direct it.
Maybe Bird will surprise meThe Incredibles was much
better than I expected it to bebut with Ratatouille
he is working with far more suspect material. Of one thing we can
be sure: if before Ratatouille's release next year some Disney
shill like Time's Richard Corliss starts hailing Bird as
the new Walt Disney, we should save our money, stay home, and watch
Dumbo again on DVD.
[Posted June 17, 2006; revised June 20, 2006]