June 8, 2006

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Cars (PG)
A race car learns valuable lessons about humility and loyalty in Cars, the latest animated film from Pixar.

Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson) is as brash and energetic as his name implies. He’s the hot newcomer of the race car world, with his stiffest competition coming from near-retirement-race-car-titan The King (Richard Petty) and the fights-dirty Chick (Michael Keaton). Lightening hopes to beat Chick in the upcoming race so that he can takeover The King’s plush endorsement deal and finally leave the down market sponsors Clink (Tom Magliozzi) and Clunk (Ray Magliozzi — brothers you might know better as Click and Clack), who have Lightening shilling their rust treatment.

On the way to the race in Los Angeles, Lightening’s makes an accidental detour and winds up on old Route 66. He comes to a town called Radiator Springs where his lightening speed lands him in the impound lot. Judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a classic car with his own need for speed, sentences him to community service and Lightening is forced to spend a little more time in town.

He befriends Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a broken down tow-truck that is full of hound dog loyalty; Luigi (Tony Shaloub) a foreign car besotted with Ferraris; Filmore (George Carlson), a hippe VW bus, and Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a sporty little Saab who loves the good life of Radiator Springs.

Though famous, Lightening realizes that he didn’t have many true friends in his race car life. Lightening sees little value in the rundown desert town at first but, with the help of the charming Sally, he begins to appreciate the friendliness of cars who, though experiencing tough times, nonetheless hang together. Sally gets him to see beyond the peeling paint and tries to tell him what the town was like back before the highway diverted all the business away from Route 66.

Cars is flawlessly beautiful. Each character is as full of personality and nuance as a living human actor. Though you might find yourself trying to place the voice (especially with Tom and Ray Magliozzi, who are most familiar as disembodied voices), the voice and the visual quickly meld to create one multi-dimensional character. The landscapes — from the twinkling highway at night to the rosy desert during the day — are breathtakingly gorgeous and can so dazzle you that you find the story getting away from you while you are stuck in “wow” mode. The details are fantastic (the insects are Bugs, tiny Volkswagons with wings). The characters move through this landscape not as solitary mobile images in a static universe but as part of a living world.

Cars is also smart. The dialogue is mostly funny without the sort of sitcom overkill that can sink lesser animated features. The characters are occasionally rude, careless, crotchety and even a bit preachy but it fits in to an overall multi-layered personality that makes these talking, eyes-on-their-windshields vehicles believable “people.”

I basically appreciate the themes behind the story of Cars — that every generation does not invent the world anew but has something to learn from those who came before, that small towns and their character are worth keeping and every place does not have to be like everyplace else, that loyalty and honorable behavior can be their own reward. I even think that if you are going to make the hot-headedness of youth a central theme and use it to say something about the changing landscape of the American west, Cars probably did it with as must finesse and as little sappiness as possible.

And yet…

Somewhere in the middle of the movie, I woke up enough from the spell of the lovely animation and heard the gratingly saccharine “Our Town” sung over a montage depicting Radiator Springs’ fall from economic grace. The movie at this point starts to get weighed down by all the woe and this jarring little moment got me thinking about the relative complexity of the themes of Cars (as opposed to the friends-on-a-journey theme of Ice Age or friends-stick-together theme of Over the Hedge). Having been to animated films with complex stories with a six-year-old, I’ve learned that the slow songs and the lectures about sprawl are when younger viewers start to tune out and fidget.

The first job of the family movie is to entertain the whole family. Cheap sentiment is like a blarring horn in the middle of a lovely melody — it shakes me out of my enjoyment and could easily lose the under-8-years-old crowd. An editor who cut or smoothed out some of this and other moments of overkill would have done Cars a world of good.

Except for this gilding of the emotional lily, Cars is a fine movie. That it succeeds despite its excesses is a true credit to the brilliance of the animation. B


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