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June 7-13, 2006

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Desert Spin: Doc Hudson goes old school in 'Cars.'

Hot Wheels

Technical dazzle succumbs to a familiar plot in 'Cars'

By Richard von Busack

NO DIGITAL animation studio can compare to Pixar. As it hits 20 years in business, it still adheres to an artist's essential duty: the restless desire to improve. In Cars, Pixar's animation goes farther than ever in all fields: in the range of its color palette and in the illusions of highlights and textures. The man-made surfaces dazzle when neon lights illuminate a desert town or when the camera coasts over the sheen of fiberglass surfaces. Pixar's artists are also more skilled than ever in re-creating landscapes or rearranging them, as when the animators move Multnomah Falls and drop it into Zion National Park. Once again, Pixar shows the audience how little they're getting from other people's CG animation.

Yet the competition must be wearing on them. The film's opening short, "One Man Band," is more psychologically interesting than the feature. In Mark Andrews and Andrew Jiminez's short, two Italian minstrels duel for the attention of a wary girl. (She has a wide, stormy forehead worthy of Orson Welles.) In her hand, she holds a single gold coin. The depth in the art is startling, as is the detail; the tangibility and shine of the coin: that's what fairy-tale money looks like; that's a florin or a ducat. Significantly, "Tin Toy," one of the earliest Pixar hits, was about a windup one-man band scurrying for safety from a slobbering baby, out of its mind with delight. Twenty years later, the entertainer in this story has to fight for the attention of a skeptical little girl. These Pixar filmmakers seem to be admitting to the difficulty of getting past the competition, as well as the effort of trying to beguile children. The little story ends with a warning that a children's audience is especially wary about showoffs and hype artists.

The warning against egotism—so perfectly and briefly wrought in "One Man Band"—is stretched to more than an hour and a half in Cars. The extravaganza concerns a hot-shot race car called "Lightning McQueen" (voiced by Owen Wilson). Busted for speeding, he is forced to chill out and do some community service in a half-abandoned desert town, bypassed by the interstate. While stuck there for a week, Lightning meets talking vehicles, including a yokel tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), the gruff Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman) and a female Porsche who dropped out of the fast lane (Bonnie Hunt). The plot is very similar to Frank Darabont's The Majestic, and the symbolism is pretty plain. The film is all about broken infrastructure that needs repairing; ill fares a nation that's forgotten its small-town values while it celebrates braggarts and loudmouths.

From conception to technique, Cars is five years ahead of the current "illustrated radio" school of digital animation, in which you haul in a group of semicelebrities and hope that the familiar tag lines they utter will make up for the cut-rate imagery. Director John Lasseter gives the cars soulful eyes and mobile mouths, but it is the limits of animating automobiles that makes this lesser Pixar. Cars aren't all that funny, and NASCAR is generally an American fetish—though Cars includes two stereotypical Italian characters to suggest racing cars is a worldwide mania. But can this really be called as universal as some of Pixar's previous subjects? The monsters under a child's bed, the secret life of insects, fish or dolls?

Movie TimesCars (G; 103 min.), directed by John Lasseter, with voices by Owen Wilson, Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt, opens June 9.

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