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The Cars Trilogy

Cars (June 8/06)

With its distinctly laid-back pace and emphasis on overt sentiment, Cars is undoubtedly destined to confound and annoy both younger viewers and steely cynics. The latter will be turned off by the cliched storyline and saccharine-laced conclusion, while the former will most likely grow restless during the movie's seemingly uneventful mid-section. But for viewers sick and tired of the never ending glut of mindlessly wacky computer animated films, Cars surely comes off a refreshing change of pace. Set in an alternate universe where automobiles have all the attributes of human beings, Cars revolves around the misadventures of hot-shot racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) - who is sentenced to remain in a small, out-of-the-way desert town until he repairs the road that he accidentally destroyed. While there, he encounters a whole host of quirky characters - including a grizzled judge (Paul Newman), a dimwitted tow-truck (Larry The Cable Guy), and a sassy lawyer/love interest (Bonnie Hunt). It goes without saying that Cars looks absolutely amazing, and one can't help but boggle at Pixar's ability to top itself with each successive film (this is especially impressive when you consider the jaw-dropping visuals of their last effort, The Incredibles). The lush, almost photo-realistic backgrounds are counterbalanced by the cartoonish look of the cars, with the end result a movie that's always fascinating if only on a purely visceral level. Likewise, filmmakers John Lasseter and Joe Ranft have done a superb job of matching this eclectic group of characters with just the right performer - something that's true even of Owen Wilson's turn as the brash and cocksure Lightning McQueen. And although the movie is packed with one top-notch performance after another from folks like Tony Shalhoub, Michael Keaton, and Bonnie Hunt, it's Paul Newman who quickly emerges as Cars' secret weapon. The actor brings a palpable sense of depth to this admittedly quirky tale, and there's little doubt that he'd be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod were animated films taken seriously at the Academy Awards. Though it does take a while for one to settle into Cars' relaxed groove, it becomes increasingly difficult to resist the earnestness with which the film has been imbued. There's a distinct sense of warmth and heart at work here, which - when combined with the skill of the Pixar gang - results in a movie that's almost impossible to dislike (and, if nothing else, the filmmakers deserve kudos for transforming Larry The Cable Guy into an engaging figure).

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Cars 2 (August 16/15)

A fairly disastrous sequel, Cars 2 follows Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he embarks on a World Grand Prix alongside his good friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) - with problems ensuing as Mater is mistaken for an American spy by Michael Caine's Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer's Holley Shiftwell. It's clear fairly early on that Cars 2's biggest problem is its newfound emphasis on Larry the Cable Guy's less-than-subtle figure, Mater, as the dumbed-down caricature only works in extremely small doses (if at all) and certainly doesn't possess the personality of a leading, sympathetic hero. The most obvious consequence of Cars 2's grating protagonist is the ineffectiveness of its action-heavy narrative, as Mater's spy-centric shenanigans prove hopelessly unable to infuse the proceedings with much-needed bursts of energy - which prevents the viewer from working up any interest in Mater's continuing exploits on a distressingly consistent basis (ie one is inclined to root more for the villains than Mater, ultimately). It's a shame, really, as the movie does possess a number of impressively conceived and executed action set-pieces, while the supporting cast has been littered with an impressive assortment of first-class performers (including John Turturro, Joe Mantegna, Bruce Campbell, and Jason Isaacs). In the end, however, Cars 2's bottom-of-the-barrel, geared-exclusively-to-small-children atmosphere ensures that most viewers past puberty will find exceedingly little to wholeheartedly embrace here - with the original, which wasn't great by any means, looking a whole lot better by comparison.

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Cars 3 (July 8/17)

The Cars saga comes to an apparent close with this hopelessly ineffective and fairly superfluous entry, with the by-the-numbers narrative following Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen as he attempts to improve his skills after encountering a younger, faster racer (Armie Hammer's Jackson Storm) - with this quest eventually pairing Lightning with a scrappy trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). It's obvious fairly early on that Cars 3 represents Pixar's attempt at returning to the series' low-key roots, as the movie jettisons the action- (and Mater-) heavy bent of its immediate predecessor in favor of something far quieter and smaller in scale - with the storyline, as becomes more and more clear, designed to echo part one's plot to an almost aggressive degree. There is, as such, little doubt that the movie suffers from an extreme atmosphere of intense familiarity, with scripters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich delivering a narrative that feels, especially in the picture's midsection, like a complete retread of the the original Cars. The palpably less-than-engrossing vibe is compounded by an ongoing emphasis on misguided, surprisingly tedious sequences (eg Lightning and Cruz's accidental participation in a demolition derby-type race), and it doesn't help, either, that the second act is focused almost entirely on Lightning's training and his eventual decision to head to his mentor's (Paul Newman's Doc Hudson) home town - with the latter stretch, though fairly sweet and heartfelt, unable to pack the emotional punch that's obviously been intended. It's ultimately difficult to label Cars 3 as anything more than a fairly shameless cash-grab that rarely, if ever, justifies its existence, which is too bad, really, given the comparatively stellar nature of the 2006 first film.

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© David Nusair