By Kevin Chen
June 7, 2006
A cocky rookie racecar named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has just suffered a setback in his plans to win the coveted Piston Cup and sign a major sponsorship deal. He's in a runoff with the reigning champ Strip 'The King' Weathers (Richard Petty) and a similarly ambitious competitor, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). He needs to get to California for the big showdown, but circumstances strand him in the forgotten town of Radiator Springs, far from the glitz and glamor that await him.
Cars is the seventh release by Pixar Animation Studios, a company whose name is synonymous with quality, character-driven entertainment and fantastic computer-generated visuals. It also features the return to the helm of John
Lasseter, one of the major creative forces behind Toy Story, its sequel, and A Bug's Life. The creative drive and resulting financial success of this team has essentially staged a coup placing them in charge of the creative direction of the Walt Disney Corporation, whose animated feature department has long lacked the sort of audience embrace (dare I say "Buzz"?) that has made Pixar a household name today. With a record that other entertainment studios can only envy, and a pedigree to which their competitors aspire, does Cars continue to uphold the gold standard?
On the surface, it certainly appears like it will. The cartoonish designs of the automotive cast have colorful visual appeal and a surprising amount of emotive capacity. If eyes are windows to the soul, then windshields here give the characters nigh-Shakespearean expressiveness.
The denizens of Radiator Springs run the gamut of personalities and makes and models, from the tire-selling Fiat named Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) to an Army surplus Jeep named Sarge (Paul Dooley), a paint shop/body artist named Ramone (Cheech Marin), and the drive-in cafe owner Flo (Jennifer Lewis). Lightning finds an unlikely friend in a rusted and rustic tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), but finds conflict with curmudgeonly Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and a Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt). Pixar has long had a tradition of favoring voices that project personality over raw star power, and it serves them well
here. Owen Wilson may be the poster boy for slightly clueless swagger, and is the perfect foil for Paul Newman's world-weary rasp. The runaway performance, however, is by Larry the Cable Guy, whose drawling antics provide both comedy and warmth.
More than simply a vehicle for homage to the filmmaker's favorite current and classic rides, Cars is a paean to the vanishing towns along scenic Route 66 and the natural beauty that caused them to be created in the first place. The locales are as much a focus as the comic antics of the cars that drive through them, and they have been crafted with such loving detail that it becomes hard to recall that every piece of chipped and cracked paint, every deco architectural detail, and every Cadillac-like geological formation was designed, modelled, and placed. In the film there is a vista of such grandeur and loveliness that my first critical thought about it was that it looked to be a beautiful matte painting. But of course it's not.
If there is a weakness to Cars, it is that it borrows heavily from a number of story stereotypes. Maverick upstart learns lessons about patience and wisdom. City slicker is taught to respect the slow pace and quiet charm of small-town living. There's some predictability in the third act as Cars adheres to conventions of the competitive sports movie genre. Michael J. Fox fans may feel
a pang of nostalgia for the direct parallels to 1991's Doc Hollywood. But if Pixar can be faulted for less originality compared to its portfolio which has repeatedly raised the bar, then they must be credited for recognizing how these hackneyed elements can be pressed into the service of the story. Even the rehashed material feels fresh rather than manipulative, as it serves to define the characters beyond their archtetypical roles.
While not the strongest of Pixar's films to date, Cars still surpasses 99% of the film marketplace by providing character, comedy, and moments of cinematic wizardry, and does so in a manner accessible to moviegoers of all ages. Even if the high price of gasoline keeps you from travelling cross-country this summer, it shouldn't deter you from the experience at your local multiplex.