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Cars , the new computer-animated movie from Pixar, is about an anthropomorphized race car who runs afoul of the law while speeding through a small town. He is sentenced to community service, makes new car friends, finds true love, learns valuable lessons about life, etc. etc.. The story worked for Doc Hollywood ; it should work again. Settling down to a nice cliché can be as comforting as a hot chicken dinner, as long as the characters are memorable, the dialog is crisp, and the screenplay is expertly structured. The problem with Cars is that it's not.

So much money and visual artistry, and so many man hours, have been squandered on a script that's pure Hollywood b.s.. Five writers got final credit, and that's four too many. Lord knows how many story meetings the poor movie was subjected to until all spontaneity fell out the cracks. It's strange; the film's director is self-admittedly obsessed with cars, but unlike with American Graffiti , say, you rarely feel any personal passion.

Pixar's pioneering first film, Toy Story , also directed by John Lasseter, had a story so ingenious, you took the Herculean technical feats almost for granted. Lasseter followed up with A Bug's Life, a bad movie that skated by because the computer graphics had undergone a quantum leap. Nobody could touch Pixar in the CG game.

But times have changed, the graphical tools have gotten easier to use, and everybody and his brother are cranking out good-looking CG; even videogames now look as good as Toy Story . Pixar will need more than better graphics to stay in front; it will have to take risks in the story department, as they did with The Incredibles - a breath of fresh air.

The theme of Cars is the soullessness of the Interstate system that made the "Mother Road," Route 66, obsolete. Tin Lizzies and '50s cruisers are stranded in a forgotten town, in mortal fear of rust. Modernization discarding the past was at the heart of Toy Story as well. Isn't it ironic that computer graphics have done exactly that to traditional animation?

Disney, which just bought Pixar, has completely dismantled its own cel animation divisions to make far less labor-intensive CG films. I suppose comparing CG and cel animation is apples to oranges. But how would it feel if all our farmers suddenly said, "You know, apples are so much cheaper, and people seem to love them. Let's chop down all the orange trees!" Wait a minute - California did chop down all its orange trees, to make way for freeways and urban sprawl. Aaaah, LA.

Cars isn't entirely terrible. The voices are okay: Owen Wilson and Bonnie Hunt are bland, but Paul Newman is wonderfully crusty, and Larry the Cable Guy is colorful, if superfluous. I liked the way they put the eyeballs of the cars on the windshields. Maybe if you care about Nascar, you'll find enough in-jokes and car culture to make the movie play all right. Children will probably dig it - but I'll bet the littlest lose patience with a midsection that sags like a swayback mule.

And after all, we can't saddle Pixar with full responsibility for an industry-wide dry rot. But they have deep pockets and total creative autonomy, and John Lasseter is more than just a director, he's Pixar's head; and now he's in charge of Disney's entire animation unit. We are right to expect some leadership. If you're looking for that in Cars , you're going to find that it is, in a word, pedestrian.

Cars is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available at Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.

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