It's a sign of how spoilt we've become for computer animation - the plummeting cost of software packages swamping us with such titles as Over the Hedge, The Ant Bully and Monster House - that reviews for Pixar's latest Cars have been so muted. To recap, if you haven't been following: Cars is no Toy Story, nor The Incredibles. It's all right, but that's all that it is. On a narrative level, this is the story of Lightning McQueen, a cocky young racing car (voiced by Owen Wilson) who, on his way to a big meet in California, crashes in the small town of Radiator Springs. According to the locals - who include a gap-toothed towtruck (Larry the Cable Guy), a flirty coupé (Bonnie Hunt) and garage elder Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) - Radiator Springs is a well-kept paradise, unfortunately bypassed by the nearby interstate. According to Lightning McQueen, this is "hillbilly hell". He'll soon pull a U-turn, in ways that suggest someone among the eight-strong writing team must have an unusual fondness for the old Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood, which again insisted its hero stay in town as part of a court-mandated civic works program: where Fox's snooty surgeon had to repair the damage he did to a fence, McQueen has to relay an entire thoroughfare.
Even if you haven't seen Doc Hollywood - and, trust me, there's no pressing reason for you to do so - then Cars' story may strike you as somewhat familiar, for it pulls up alongside us as further proof that creatives who have enough success bestowed upon them will eventually take that very success (in the form of fame) as their subject. The film's opening sequence could only have been produced by a studio in their pomp: all light, noise and speed, swarming crowds of (admittedly digitised) extras and an anonymous MOR song on the soundtrack. Lightning McQueen is clearly suffering from that very modern disease, celebrity, for which the only cure can be a move back to the sticks and a corrective lesson in teamwork and community. Why, just consider the heavy immigration out of L.A. by all those renouncing chicks and glitter for small, quiet, homelier bergs such as Radiator Springs. (No, I didn't think so, either.) Even as studio as attentive in their storytelling as Pixar has no real luck selling us on this, the least convincing of all contemporary Hollywood plots.
Cars also suffers to some degree from bad timing: emerging into not just a summer swarming with pixels, but also a season where an increased awareness of global warming has made the internal combustion engine something like public enemy number one, and at a time where Formula One (at least as it is in Europe) has become little more than a means for vapid playboys to support a bling lifestyle. (In fact, Cars is very much a film for the NASCAR crowds - Mario Andretti has a cameo as the car version of himself - which may further limit its appeal to European audiences.) Throughout, the action is driven, if you'll excuse the pun, by a nostalgia for the golden age of motoring; as one of Randy Newman's songs puts it, "Long ago/Not so long ago/The world was different/Oh yes it was". This retro feel runs counter to Pixar's previous philosophy: films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo were surely all about embracing change and growth, however fraught and painful that process may be.
Still, if Cars lacks the magic of those great Pixar endeavours, it nevertheless offers residual compensation. The palette of Fifties pinks and peppermints is immensely appealing, as is the design work, which strives to find automotive equivalents for everything, right down to the tyre tracks that take the place of vapour trails in the sky and the "Braking News" updates rolling along the bottom of TV screens. (A continued - if minor - niggle: the trend of having minor characters redubbed by indigenous personalities. After the landmark work of Kate Thornton in Shrek 2 and Fiona GMTV Phillips in Shark Tale, Cars offers us Jeremy Clarkson phoning in his performance as Lightning McQueen's agent. As the role was voiced by the great Jeremy Piven in the original US dub, it's a double sacrilege - and for all the comic timing Clarkson demonstrates, Disney could have got Jeremy Spake from Airport to dub it.) I wasn't as sold on A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. as some of my colleagues - I'd take Antz and Monster House over them - so Cars never seemed quite as big a disappointment or betrayal to me as it has apparently been for some. It's the first Pixar film to be merely serviceable, and that's okay; it's all right, and that's all right, too.
Cars is available on DVD through Walt Disney Home Entertainment; a sequel, Cars 3, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.