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Friday, June 30, 2006

Pixar runs out of gas

Seems like they've used up all their jokes


Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: John Lasseter
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 1
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Pixar has been making great animated films for so long that it's tempting to think that they'll never be anything less than excellent. But in their latest, "Cars," Pixar looks a lot like Zico's boys in the World Cup: going through the motions, but rarely finding the back of the net.

News photo
Lightning McQueen (left) and Mater in "Cars" (C) 2006 DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC. / PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS

"Cars" seems to have emerged from the same secret bunker at Pixar HQ where some mysterious, Oz-like figure keeps The List of Things All Children Like. After moving through toys, bugs, monsters, sea creatures, and superheroes, this all-seeing, all-knowing demographic wizard has alighted on their latest platform for global under-11 domination: Cars. What next? Let me guess: Dinosaurs? Aliens? Or, maybe, breakfast cereals?

Don't get me wrong, I like Pixar. But after attending director John Lasseter's press conference in Shinjuku -- which meant running a veritable gauntlet of tie-in merchandise on display -- it's starting to feel like the tail is wagging the dog. Lasseter and everyone else at Pixar will tell you, time and time again, that it's all about telling good stories and entertaining people, and I'll take them at their word. But after six very profitable hits in a row, from 1995's "Toy Story" to 2004's "The Incredibles," the pressure to rack up another one must be, well, incredible.

And what happens when people start to worry about making not just a good film, but a highly profitable film? They second-guess themselves, they look to repeat what worked before, they rely on formula, and they cease to take chances. They also feel the pressure to push ahead and have some product ready for release, even if the ideas aren't there. All these things seem true of "Cars," which is the only Pixar film I've sat through where nobody laughed! (OK, well once.)

The premise this time is a world that's all cars and no people, kind of like Dick Cheney's wet dreams of a future America, where the denizens slurp oil, not Coke. We start at a speedway where not just the racers but also the spectators that are doing "the wave" are all automobiles . . . albeit ones with googly eyes in their windshields and mouths above their bumpers. (And the Pixar animators manage to sell this conceit; welding machine-perfect resolution of the cars to the anthropomorphic qualities).

Racing to a bitter third place finish is brash upstart Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a stock-car who's plainly full of himself. On his way to his next big race, an accidental detour off Route 66 lands him in the nowhere town of Radiator Springs. There, big-city Lightning must endure the bumpkins and yokels until -- cue big moral lesson here -- he learns there's something to be said for jes' plain folk -- that it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game, and that every cloud has a silver lining . . . and that there's a cliche for every kid's movie.

The problem this time becomes apparent quickly, and it's just that Lasseter -- who also wrote the screenplay -- has failed to come up with any jokes. The attempts at humor -- like a comedy show hosted by "Jay Limo," or bumper ointment "for your rear" -- are just lame. In fact, most of what passes for humor are just the cheapest of stereotypes, bland comedy fall-backs that have no distinction. There's the retro VW van who talks like a hippie (voiced by comedian George Carlin, natch'), the rusty tow truck who talks like a hick (Larry The Cable Guy), the low-rider with a Hispanic accent (Cheech Marin), the jeep that talks like a drill sergeant (Paul Dooley), etc. The Italian stereotype that was used for Luigi the Ferrari -- of the "it's-a nice-a-pizza" variety -- did not win any points with this critic; Tony Shalhoub should be ashamed of himself. It's worth noting how Nick Park produced a lot more laughs out of better-drawn characters in "Wallace & Gromit"; Lasseter's main characters lend themselves more to the film's moral lesson than the jokes, never a good proposition these days.

Lasseter's a good friend of Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki, and while at the press conference, Lasseter claimed that the quieter moments in "Cars" bear his influence, it's hard to see. Miyazaki, in his best works ("Spirited Away," "Nausicaa"), creates a whole world, one for the viewer to get lost in. He doesn't need to be jokey all the time, because his stories evoke wonder and mystery. Lasseter's world, however, does nothing of the sort: His world of "Cars" is just another America, larded with barely funny pop-culture references and celebrity cameo voices. Is it a failure of imagination, or just more evidence that Americans remain so enamored of their culture, they have a hard time imagining any other. (Which would explain why all those foreign films get re-made by Hollywood).

And maybe I'm being petty here, but this kept bugging me for hours after the film ended: If the world's only sentient beings are cars, who's piloting the planes?

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