Neon, NASCAR and America’s magnificent desert scenery provide the unique visual backdrops for Pixar’s latest animation feature, Cars. Although a tad long and perhaps too sophisticated for pre-kindergarten tots, older kids will enjoy the movie’s high-octane action, and adults will delight in the in-jokes, the numerous cameo voiceovers and the sentimental tribute to 1950s car culture.
Directed by Pixar’s John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life), and with a record number of eight credited writers, Cars varooms along with the company’s signature bright colors, thrilling action and meticulous attention to telling details.
But without a child figure, Cars misses the full emotional wallop of Finding Nemo, which remains Pixar’s most legendary achievement. Lacking humans or fuzzy animals, animation runs the risk of having style but no heart; witness Robots — the nuts-and-bolts imagery was wildly inventive, but the characters were too coldly metallic to be lovable.
All of the characters in Cars are vehicles — cars of all kinds, trucks of all sizes, fire engines, VW vans, RVs, Jeeps, a forklift, a helicopter, a hilarious herd of cow-like tractors and hordes of tiny, splattering wheely-bugs. The vehicles become lifelike, and thus lovable, with a simple technique: The eyes are in the windshield (not the headlights, which is the usual way) and the mouth is the vehicle’s grille and bumper. Thus, there’s an enormous range of facial expressions that can be inspired by the design details on a car’s front. A terrific voice-over cast adds to the characters’ vitality, and the movie’s overall attitude of full-throttle forward motion is a metaphor that can move even the most dedicated couch potatoes in the audience.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a self-absorbed NASCAR rookie who wants to grab for all the perks of being a Piston Cup winner without recognizing his teammates. He gets stranded in Radiator Springs, an isolated desert town that time forgot when Route 66 bypassed it. Urged on by the town’s civic-minded attorney, a sexy Porsche 2002 named Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), Lightning is forced to stay in Radiator Springs to re-asphalt the road he tore up. Among the town’s many quirky residents are Doc, a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past (voiced by Paul Newman), Mater (short for “Tow-Mater”), a buck-toothed, good-ol’-boy tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) who was the favorite of the kids in the audience, and my favorite, a sleek, aquamarine-tinted 1950s show car named Flo.
Sally flirts with Lightning by racing him along the curving desert back roads, kicking sand in his face, splashing him with mud and teasing him with her finely detailed back end. Lightning and Mater do some late-night boy-bonding by scaring a field full of tractors and then get chased themselves by a fierce, fire-breathing combine. Meanwhile, Doc teaches Lightning some hard-won lessons about racing, winning, losing and the value of staying with your friends past the finish line.
Don’t miss the short cartoon preceding the feature, entitled One-Man Band, which is worth the price of admission by itself. And stay until the very end, as some of the funniest bits of animation are rolled with the credits after the main story’s over. The Web site for the movie is worth visiting ahead of time, especially for kids: www.disney.go.com/disneypictures/cars.
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller