Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is the hotshot newcomer to the pro car-racing scene and is on the cusp of becoming a big winner. When he is part of a triple tie in the famous Piston Cup race, the speedy little car must journey to California for a winner-take-all three-way race. He takes a wrong turn onto Route 66 and ends up in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs where he will learn some very valuable life lessons in Disney-Pixar’s latest collaboration, “Cars.”
Cars” has been in the works for a long time, so long that the talk has been of it being problematic. The problem, I think, is that uber-animator John Lasseter and his large team of writers (no less than six credited) have created a visually slick story but one that lacks heart. The derivative tale of a big city boy entering a small town world is an almost note-by-note copy of the Michael J. Fox comedy, “Doc Hollywood.” This lack of originality keeps “Cars” from being much more than mildly amusing.
Lightning is a cocky young racecar who thinks that he can win it all by himself. In his debut he ties the race with legendary Strip Weathers, AKA The King (voice of Richard Petty), and perennial second-placer Chick Hicks (voice of Michael Keaton). The photo finish prompts the track officials to declare a three-way race-off to be held in distant California. The three contenders make a side bet on who will arrive first and McQueen demands that his driver, Mack the truck (voice of John Ratzenberger), make the journey without sleep. The punchy Mack doesn’t notice when his boss accidentally slides out of the truck during their long journey, stranding Lightning along the famous Route 66.
McQueen’s entry into Radiator Springs reaps destruction upon the road running through the town. He is arrested by the Sheriff, a 1949 Mercury police cruiser (voiced by Route 66 expert Michael Wallis), for the mess he created and is sentence to community service to repair the road. But, the time to the race is rapidly ticking by and Lightning will do anything to blow the one-horse power town to fulfill his destiny as a champion.
Joining Lightning are varied array of character cars ranging from Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet (voiced by Paul Newman) with a mysterious past; Sally Carrera, a snappy 2002 Porsche 911 (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) who came to the town from the big city and decided to stay; Mater, a rusty but trusty tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy); a 1960 VW love bus named Fillmore (voice of George Carlin), who his neighbor, Sarge (voice of Paul Dooley), a 1942 Willys Army jeep, complains about but whose company he can’t live without; Ramone (voiced by Cheech Marin), a 1959 Chevy low-rider, and his wife, Flo (voice of Jenifer Lewis), a sharp-witted 1950’s show car who owns Flo’s V-8 Café, the local watering (gasolining?) hole; and Luigi (voice of Tony Shalhoub), the 1959 Fiat 500 who runs the Casa Della Tires shop with his forklift buddy, Guido (Guido Quaroni).
This huge cast of vocal talents are supplemented the voice additions of racing legends Petty, Mario Andretti, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Formula One ace Michael Schumacher. Also lending vocal talents are sports broadcaster Bob Costas and automotive experts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, affectionately know to their fans as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of National Public Radio’s Car Talk fame.
Unfortunately, this mega cast of vocal talent is hamstrung by the routine story that simply replaces humans with cars. The big city celebrity, Lightning, finds himself in small town America populated by colorful, down-home characters that will humble the cocky young car and give him a new appreciation for such things as friendship, loyalty and the importance of teamwork. When McQueen finally arrives at the race-off it is with a new appreciation of what it means to be a real competitor. Being a champion does not necessarily mean being a winner. It’s a nice story but lacks the charm of such other Disney-Pixar works as the “Toy Story” flicks, “Monsters, Inc.” or “The Incredibles,” making “Cars” feel second-tier.
Technically, “Cars” does represent the continued CGI artistry and innovation that made Pixar a household name for animation mastery. The attention to details, such as the first time use of “ray tracing,” a new technique where the title characters accurately reflect their environment on their sheetmetal, continues the animation house dominance of the technology. “Cars” is a great looking film that doesn’t have a great story, too. I give it a B.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, "The Wedding Crashers") thinks he has all that it takes to win the prestigious Piston Cup of racing, but when he's stranded in the depressed town of Radiator Springs, he learns a lot of life lessons, including the value of team work, in "Cars."
Pixar has finally broken its magical streak with a solid, enjoyable movie whose only real drawback is its failure to inspire awe with its visuals and to thoroughly transport with its storytelling. "Cars" is a cute little film with many worthwhile, if unoriginal, observations and the occasional well-earned laugh.
Lightning is a hot-shot hot rod who doesn't believe in pit stops, declaring himself a one-man show. He's popular with the ladies although embarrassed by the rusted out fans who support him at his sponsor tent. He dreams of the day when he can leave Rusteze behind for current champ The King's (NASCAR champ Richard Petty) star-level advertiser and if only he had listened to his pit crew, he could have in the film's first minutes. Instead, he finds himself in a three way tie with The King and perpetual second-placer Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton, "Herbie Fully Loaded") and a Piston Cup runoff is scheduled one week hence in Los Angeles. But Lightning doesn't make it, instead ending up in the almost-ghost town of Radiator Springs' slammer where he is sentenced to community service fixing the access road to the highway which now bypasses the once popular Rte. 66.
It's in Radiator Springs where Lightning will learn humility - both at the hands of lawyer Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt, "Cheaper by the Dozen 2"), who initially refuses to succumb to his charm,s and by local tire expert Luigi (Tony Shalhoub, TV's "Monk") whose enthusiasm at meeting a race car deflates when he discovers McQueen is not in the Ferrari circuit. The value of friendship is taught by the dim but loyal Mater (Larry The Cable Guy, "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector") and the value of wisdom and experience by former Piston champ Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the town's judge whose former glory was sidelined by an unfortunate accident.
Unlike, say, "A Bug's Life," which ingeniously gave pop culture the entomological treatment, "Cars" simply substitutes various makes and models for character types. The closest it gets to the total submersion in its own world's humor is by showing winged VWs in a bug zapper, a joke it uses not once, but twice. "Cars" fares better in its more subtle backgrounding, like the rock formations that look like 1950s tail fins or character-based humor like using grillwork detritus as spinach in Lightning's teeth.
Voice work is all good, with Wilson toning down his stoner vibes to attain something both innocent and cocky. Funniest is Shalhoub as the passionate Italian. Clever casting can be found in the use of NPR stars "Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers" Tom and Ray Magliozzi as the Rusteze guys and transforming sportscaster Bob Costas into Bob Cutlass.
Animation work is top notch, but it is more difficult to get worked up over the recreation of characters which consist of man made materials to begin with. The cars' eyes, oddly, float across white backgrounded windshields with visor eyebrows providing emotion, a different choice from the more obvious headlights although not necessarily a better one.
Pixar's 2005 nominee for Best Animated Short, "One Man Band," is a terrific little opener, but even it shows its indebtedness to predecessor "Tin Toy."
It's a wonder Pixar managed to continue topping or at least equally its past successes for so long and unfortunate that an otherwise satisfying effort will be judged as somehow lacking. As so often happens, when a director indulges a long held love (Lasseter is an automobile aficionado), he perhaps pleases himself more than his audience.
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