As you watch Pixar’s new computer-animated feature, “Cars,” boredom sets in. You can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen it all before. As in “Toy Story” (1995), “A Bug’s Life” (1998), “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) and “Finding Nemo” (2003), “Cars” takes place in a world where nonhuman entities live like people.
Here, the central figures are cars: New ones and old, working stiffs like the tow truck Tom Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and speedway stars like the movie’s hero, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).
You could write the rest of “Cars” in your sleep, down to the puns (Bob Costas lends his voice to the character of sportscaster Bob Cutlass) and Randy Newman ditty (“Our Town,” sounding a lot like “When She Loved Me” from 1999’s “Toy Story 2”).
In light of the last few years’ worth of computer-animated movies — Dream-Works’ “Madagascar” and “Over the Hedge”; Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “Robots”; and Disney’s “Chicken Little,” “Valiant” and “The Wild” — the disappointment of “Cars” speaks to a larger matter: Our fertile era for computer animation may finally be drawing to an end.
To understand the stagnation of these films, it’s worth remembering the surprise of the first entirely computer-animated feature, “Toy Story.” Released in 1995, the film is a charming portrait of friendship between the staid cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and the head-in-the-clouds spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), two toys who come to life. Its then-unprecedented, still-dazzling 3-D computer images created a startling sense of realism. Hand-drawn animation seemed old-fashioned.
But for all the film’s visual wonders, the key to “Toy Story’s” power was its emotional range. After years of safety and comfort, Buzz and Woody are left behind. They must reckon with the often irrational fear we all experience: What if the person who loves us most moves on? “Toy Story” took its place in the cartoon pantheon with “Bambi,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Pinocchio” because, like those movies, it refused to condescend to its youngest viewers; it understood that children often experience the world through a dark, difficult lens.
These are invaluable lessons, that characters and feelings matter more than slambang effects and glib comedy. But so many of this decade’s computer-animated movies have failed to heed those lessons. In the years since “Toy Story,” the technological advances in computer animation have been extraordinary: Filmmakers can create shadows, textures and colors as far-ranging and convincing as in any live-action feature. Whereas “Toy Story” looked boxy, and the images took on slightly faded hues, “Cars” is all seductive curves, bursting colors and accurate details.
What of it, though? The novelty of “Toy Story” was that it blurred the line between the cartoon world and the real one, just as the story blurred the line between the toy world and the human one. But that wasn’t to suggest that we would want those boundaries entirely erased. In “Cars,” the scenes set at the motorway — as the race cars speed around to the delight of fans — might as well have been borrowed from ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” In last year’s “Valiant,” the homing pigeons look so similar to the real-life New York City variety.
Both movies bring to mind the folly of George Lucas’ recent “Star Wars” prequels, where the computergenerated images were so painstakingly composed that they were cold and boring to look at. Don’t these filmmakers realize that, as in real life, we tend to fall in love not with the most perfect-looking specimens but with the ones that have personality and style?