Planet Gas

Pixar takes us back to the days of cheap leaded fuel, tail fins, and winding highways. Which is fine for dads, though kids may not see the point.

I love the smell of high-octane in the morning; it smells like childhood. A baby-boomer retro road trip, Cars is the first Pixar movie to err too much toward the youth of its creators, rather than that of its intended audience. Though now the highest of high-tech computer animation companies, crown jewel of the tarnished Disney bonnet, Pixar here gums up the circuits of its latest model with too much nostalgia. It's a crinkled yellow road map followed by Toy Story's John Lasseter, Pixar's company head, and probably the most valuable man in Hollywood. But let's be clear—the movie is no Edsel. It's not a failure. It will charm and delight more like an Avanti or Studebaker glimpsed on the interstate. It's a weird-looking relic of an earlier age. Digital-era kids still a half-dozen years from their driver's licenses will wonder what the fuss is about (and also why the story takes two hours to tell), while their fathers get all misty for family road trips along Route 66. Cars looks back through the curved glass of a station wagon rear window, not ahead to the hybrid, urbanized, and globally warmed future. Never did the words "fossil" and "fuel" seem so closely linked.

Pixar has always had problems spanning the gulf, the suspension of disbelief, between animate and inanimate objects. The two Toy Story pictures worked wonderfully if you ignored the occasional intruding humans. Likewise Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. Dolls and monsters and fish have personalities, while pink-skinned humans seem, well, creepy. Lasseter's solution here is to do away with people entirely. His hero is a brash red race car (voiced by Owen Wilson), who gets stranded in a desert hamlet populated entirely by other autos. There, we've got a gruff old-timer (Paul Newman), a sexy Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), and various four-wheeled stereotypes (Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Tony Shalhoub, and Larry the Cable Guy—the hick). But no people. On this petroleum planet, the eyes are expressed through windshields and the lips upon bumpers. Hunt has a tattoo discretely hidden beneath her rear spoiler. Wilson's mouth looks like the leering snout of a shark—or something else not suited for G-rated fare.

Anthropomorphizing cowboy dolls and astronaut action figures was a more innocent business. Their limbs and faces weren't so far from our own. Lasseter tries here to give the sheet metal skinlike elasticity, so Wilson's tires and fenders sometimes reach and grasp like hands. Newman's chrome visage crinkles and scowls when he talks. It's all a little uncanny; Tom Hanks and Tim Allen fit better in their digital suits. The Pixar touch works better in the details: Wilson's villainous rival is sponsored by HTB, Hostile Takeover Bank; tiny bugs are, naturally, tiny VW Beetles; and jet contrails streak white tire patterns across the blue Southwestern sky.

IN THE Americana of Ornament Valley, the red rock mesas suspiciously resemble striated Oldsmobile hoods and winged radiator caps. Other outcrops mimic the famous Cadillac Ranch. Pink clouds and sunsets recall Thomas Moran's vistas of the American West. They may not be historically accurate, but they're romantically enduring. Lasseter is right to think of these panoramas as a better place—or a better place in time. His message, when it comes, is bigger than Wilson's need to respect tradition and show some humility. When the camera pulls back to reveal the old, gracefully meandering highway and the new, linear interstate that replaced it, Hunt's character tells Wilson, "Cars didn't drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time." Their romantic drive together amounts to a Miyazaki moment, a reconnecting with nature, and Wilson concedes, "It's nice to slow down once in a while." (Later, there's even a sappy James Taylor ballad mourning the loss of pre-Wal-Mart Main Street.)

Lasseter makes a sound environmental point—but only up to a point. True, the postwar interstate system trenched and blasted and gouged its way across the landscape, unlike the quaint winding byways of Lasseter's boyhood, yet his nostalgia is misplaced. We're not talking about the Indian trails and cattle drives of John Ford's mythic West. There's something bizarre about Wilson's and Hunt's love-struck hot rods cavorting like ponies, these machines stopping to smell the roses. In fact, they never leave the asphalt; they're implicated in the same modern sprawl that Lasseter hates.

This is weirdly evident when Wilson reaches California for a final NASCAR-style race against his two rivals (one voiced by Richard Petty). Cars pointedly contrasts the bygone beauty of Radiator Springs with our suburban blight—but again, how does Lasseter think it got that way? What made the San Fernando Valley the San Fernando Valley? And who goes for a pleasure drive today? Let's be honest: Even if you work at Pixar and can afford a Porsche, driving generally means commuting, errands, and traffic jams. As An Inconvenient Truth reminds us, it's a profoundly destructive and unnatural act. It should be painful and expensive. You can't simply motor back in time to nature's untrammeled idyll.

Cars begins and ends on the oval, which gives Wilson's chastened racer a final chance to show some character (after being mentored, of course, by Newman). This last spectacle—cars competing for an audience of cars—reminded me of those North Korean stadium pageants or Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Here is pure movement and speed, humanity transformed into glorious machinery. Which, I suppose, is what modern entertainment is all about. But my feeling is the same as in gridlock on I-5—it would be better to get out of the car and walk.

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