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Pixar's joy ride finally stalls with 'Cars'

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I'm always reluctant to come down too hard on even the paltriest animated film because I understand how incredibly painstaking the animation process can be. The making of any movie can be laborious, of course, but here's a statistic that will send shivers down your spine: In the new Pixar comedy, "Cars," the average time to render a single frame of film was 17 hours. Kind of makes you feel like a slacker, no?

Now that I've divulged my reluctance, allow me to also divulge that "Cars," although obviously the product of highly gifted and hard-working animators, is something of a misfire.

Why should this be, after an unbroken string of critical and commercial successes for Pixar that includes the "Toy Story" movies, "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles"?

For one thing, there is simply too much story, none of it terribly interesting or fresh. The only novelty here is that "Cars" is populated entirely by cars - bright shiny racers, rusty tow trucks, sporty Porsches, and imposing antiques like a 1951 Hudson Hornet.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a red race-car rookie who is primed to win the upcoming Piston Cup Championship in California. On the way, his life takes an unexpected detour in the backwater town of Radiator Springs off Route 66. There he befriends goofy Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and the sky-blue Porsche Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), that vintage Hornet, is the town's Man With a Past - a crotchety Yoda.

As one might expect, director John Lasseter and his codirector, the late Joe Ranft, have done a fine job of bringing to life these driving machines. But as chock-full of personality as they are, their incessant chatter is wearying, and, they lack the anthropomorphic complexities of the fish and bugs and toys and superheroes of the earlier Pixar films. They remain steadfastly one-dimensional.

The filmmaker's resolutely realistic approach may be partly to blame for this. As Jay Ward, the movie's characters-department manager, was quoted as saying, "John didn't want the cars to seem claylike or mushy.... They shouldn't appear light or overly bouncy to the point where the audience might see them as rubber toys."

But by relying too much on snappy dialogue and by adhering to the philosophy that "steel should feel like steel and glass should feel like glass," the filmmakers have bridled their imaginations and created a movie about toys that are too blubbery and not rubbery enough. Grade: B

Rated G.

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