Cars (PG)

ANDREW CLARKE Pixar Animation has such a long and wonderful track record - Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo - but sadly their latest film Cars falls someway short of the extremely high standard that we have come to expect from these masters of animated storytelling.


Oh dear, oh dear. Pixar Animation has such a long and wonderful track record - Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo - that I suppose it had to happen one day, but sadly their latest film Cars falls someway short of the extremely high standard that we have come to expect from these masters of animated storytelling.

Pixar's strength in the past was that they were great storytellers, producing imaginative movies that the whole family could enjoy. A Pixar film would play just as well to teenagers, thirtysomethings, fiftysomethings, eightysomethings as they would to children. They were so well written and so well animated that they would play to different audiences on different levels. The scripts were intelligent comedies which didn't rely on the visual elements to be funny.

Sadly, Cars is a very one-dimensional film and does require the lure of its first-rate animation to keep older audiences interested. Pixar has produced a children's film rather than a family film.

Cars combines the look of Thomas The Tank Engine with the moralistic story of Doc Hollywood. Whereas in Monsters Inc and A Bug's Life, director John Lassester and his team worked very hard to create individual personalities that we as an audience could identify with, in Cars the characters are nothing more than simplistic plot devices designed to keep the story moving.

The look of the film is very much that of Thomas The Tank Engine but is transferred from trains on to cars. Each vehicle has its own face imposed onto the vehicle and cars populate the world. The story is a mind-bogglingly simple one and revolves around a small but fast race car called Lightning McQueen - after motor-racing fan Steve McQueen.

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Voiced by Owen Wilson, Lightning McQueen is in the running for the big end of season trophy, The Piston Cup. It's a three-way race featuring reigning champion The King (Richard Petty), perennial runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and Lightning as the newcomer.

It's quickly apparent that although Lightning McQueen maybe a talented race car, he is also a self-absorbed, egotistical, self-publicist who manages to alienate his entire pit crew - made up entirely of little vehicles.

When the last race of the season ends in a draw, it is declared that the three finalists will have a race-off for The Piston Cup across the other side of the country in California.

With only Mack, his faithful haulage truck, still on his side McQueen sets off for California but during the long night he finds himself lost and alone in the hot, dusty American mid-west.

After tearing up the high street and half destroying the town McQueen is arrested and is sentenced to repair the damage he has caused. At first he is resentful of the local yokels as he sees them but as time wears on, he comes to understand and eventually to love them. Even more importantly, thanks to the local Mayor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and the local motel owner and part-time lawyer (Bonnie Hunt), he starts to understand that winning is not everything and he starts to appreciate the slower things in life.

Sally the Porsche (Hunt) also makes sure that he honours his promises and does not just say things to get himself an easy ride.

This then is the very simple story. The characters are there just to service this highly moralistic tale. At times it seems that we as an audience are being lectured to rather than being entertained. The whole film has an earnest, heavy-handed approach which is not the Pixar style at all. It seems that they have lost, temporarily I hope, that light touch which made their earlier films so delightful to watch.

The animation as you would expect is first-rate and fans of Nascar racing will enjoy the long, almost photo-real, racing sequences. But here lies another problem with the film for European audiences - Nascar racing is a very American sport. It's not Formula One. Also the setting is very American with the film being set largely in the rural American mid-west and with John Lasseter asking us to affectionately remember small-town America of the late 1940s and 50s - a memory none of us can have.

Cars is a strange contradiction. It is resolutely a movie for children and yet it is also a nostalgia exercise for an age of lost innocence.

At one point Sally shows McQueen the modern interstate and sadly informs him: “Time was when cars went on to the road not to make time but to have a great time.” She points out they could see and enjoy the changing countryside while supporting the local economy by buying food and gas in the local towns - which today are all by-passed.

Cars is a film with a message but it misfires so badly that I am surprised that it made out off the production line and on to the street.

Hopefully Pixar boss John Lasseter will have already gone back to the drawing board to sort things out and this will be just a temporary backfire.

The kids will love it, the animation is great, but there's not enough here to hold the attention of an adult audience.