Get Your Kicks off Route 66
Almost every animal under the sun has been anthropomorphized for the big screen, so why not four-wheeled creatures? We Americans sure love our automobiles -- high gas prices and global warming be darned! -- and NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in the land. Fortunately, the artisans at Pixar top the list of moviemakers you'd pick to fetishize this national obsession. They've done a stellar job with toys, bugs, and fish and now they've turned steel and rubber icons into shiny, CGI porn suitable for the entire family.
Most of its horsepower can be attributed to the sparkly visuals, which is why Cars doesn't equal the genius of (my favorites) Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. Higher-octane characterizations and a more novel plot are necessary to become a vintage model. The storyline, a knock-off of the 1991 Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood, drags during the middle laps, making for restless moviegoers until Cars revs back up to drive home its message about friendship and small-town values.
Conceptually, the picture suffers from a lack of context. In this universe, all sentient beings are some form of automobile -- even the flies -- so there's no external reference point other than very familiar personalities. Director John Lasseter and crew have imagined a world that's just like ours, except they've substituted VWs, Fords, Porsches, and Ferraris. "Cars are people too" is taken too literally, but the look of the action is pretty exciting.
Cars begins and ends on racing ovals with stands jammed-packed with vehicular spectators. The hero is a hotshot rookie racecar named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who's challenging two veterans for the Piston Cup point's championship. After a three-way tie, the upstart heads cross country to California for the tie-breaking race. En route, he's marooned in the desert hamlet of Radiator Springs just off Route 66. He runs afoul of the law but eventually rejuvenates the once-vibrant town, which time and the Interstate have bypassed.
Naturally he encounters a pack of predictably colorful denizens: his love interest Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and assorted stereotypes voiced by George Carlin (hippie van), Cheech Marin (Latino low-rider), and Paul Dooley (military jeep). The emotional engine of the movie is Mater, a loveably dim-witted tow truck with buck teeth voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. With this performance, the red-neck comic nearly makes up for his own unhygienic feature released early this year, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. A particularly memorable and original sequence has Lightning and Mater go tractor tipping. A few more of those wouldn't hurt.
As visually diverting a technical achievement as Cars is, its filmmakers can't resist cannibalizing old Pixar productions for humor in the end title sequence, in which characters voiced by John Ratzenberger (here Lightning's big rig transportation) provide the through line. The nostalgic yearning for small-town, car-centric America ("Happy Days" in a drier climate) gives off less toxic gas than you'd expect thanks to the climactic "race of the century" where winning is defined in quite an altruistic way.
There's also a plug for capitalism and commerce, as the key to the rebirth of Radiator Springs, which fits with the film's countless product tie-ins. Somehow I didn't feel run over by the message however; maybe because the nexus of cars, sports, and money is so identifiable as part of our secular religion. Cars might have joined the ranks of the best animated movies had Pixar dared to travel down less familiar byways.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar and rated "G" as suitable for all audiences.)