Cars (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Thus far, Pixar has given features and voices to bugs, toys, monsters, and fish, so why not cars? Although Cars is arguably the weakest animated feature to emerge from the virtual drawing board at this successful company, it's also the best animated film to come along since Disney distributed The Incredibles. The flaws in Cars relate to how younger viewers will see the film - it's a little too long and a little too slow. While adults may not mind sitting through "filler," children, with their notoriously short attention spans, may become restless.

Cars brings two well-worn clich├ęs to the animated realm. The first is the uneasy buddy relationship between an older gent and a young hotshot. The second is the story of how a pastoral setting seeps into the blood of a city boy. Cars is character-driven, which means that it has fewer action scenes than most recent animated films. Aside from car races, there's very little here to base a video game upon. The action/adventure limitations allow the character arcs to breathe and provide room for a love story, but there are times when the pace is sluggish.

Cars transpires in a world of automobiles, where there are no humans or animals. Even the flies are tiny cars with wings. Owen Wilson provides the voice of Lightning McQueen, a rookie NASCAR-inspired race car striving to win The Piston Cup. When he ends the season tied with his two chief competitors, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and The King (Richard Petty), it's off to a winner-takes-all tie-breaker in California. Along the way, however, Lightning wanders off the interstate and gets stranded along Route 66 in the tiny Carburetor County town of Radiator Springs. Arrested for traffic violations, Lightning is sentenced to repair the road before being allowed to continue west. At first, he resents this, but soon friendships form: with tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who takes him "tractor tipping;" with Sally (Bonnie Hunt) the motel owner, who takes him on long, scenic drives; and with Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a retired race car champion who teaches the youngster a few lessons while surprisingly learning a thing or two. Will Lightning finish the road in time to make it to the big race? Will he abandon his true love and Radiator Springs for the spotlight of fame and fortune? Admittedly, you probably know the answers, but it's still fun watching them play out.

The story may be soft for a Pixar film, but the animation in Cars exceeds anything we have previously seen, and that's quite a statement considering how far computer-generated visuals have come in the last ten years. Pixar sets the bar higher; now it will be up to Fox and Dreamworks to see if they can match or top this level. (Considering how much recent animation has been about product at the expense of art, one wonders if they'll try.) The single most stunning sequences come during Lightning and Sally's "Sunday drive," as they head out into the desert canyons and up into the mountains. The landscapes are as gorgeous as anything ever before depicted on film: animated or otherwise. Other of Cars' parts are impressive; this one is breathtaking.

As usual, the voices are expertly chosen. Owen Wilson has the requisite mix of brashness and likeability to play Lightning, the self-absorbed car who discovers there's more to life than winning races. Paul Newman's Doc Hudson sounds wise and world-weary. Bonnie Hunt, abandoning her usual sardonic style, is bright and chipper. Larry the Cable Guy is perfect as the friendless, dim bulb Mater. Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, and George Carlin also contribute. The only questionable choices are the cameos - both Jay Leno and Bob Costas appear miscast, the former as a late-night talk show host and the latter as a sportscaster. Meanwhile, racing fans will appreciate contributions from Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Mario Andretti, and Michael Schumacher.

The humor, as is typical of Pixar, is comprised of jokes aimed at all age ranges. Some of the comedy will go over the heads of younger viewers, but there are plenty of gags for the junior members of the audience. Overall, if the film is not as funny as its predecessors, that's probably part and parcel of why it doesn't seem as enchanting. Emotionally, despite the character arc, Cars doesn't resonate in the same way The Incredibles or Toy Story did. The film represents solid family entertainment, and this will be reflected in a huge box office windfall but, while Cars may cross the finish line ahead of any of 2006's other animated films, it's several laps behind its Pixar siblings.

Cars (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2006-06-09
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1