I’m not sure anyone in the history of Hollywood has had the track record of Pixar. Their six previous films (Toy Story 1&2, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monsters, Inc.) were not just critical and commercial successes - they were all grand slams. To continue the baseball metaphor, Pixar has hit it out of the park every time they’ve stepped up to the plate. Their seventh film, Cars, continues this amazing streak.
The first ten minutes of Cars will astound you. Technology in computer animation has evolved to the point where you can have a NASCAR-style race, complete with thousands of fans in the enormous stadium and a rush of speed that makes you feel like you’re behind the wheel. This race is the Piston Cup, and car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is intent on winning it. To do so, the rookie will have to beat his rival, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), and a veteran car named “The King” (Richard Petty). By winning the Piston Cup, Lightning can get a better sponsor; his current sponsor is for rusty bumper cream, which, in human terms, is akin to hemorrhoid ointment. Better sponsorship will equal fame, fortune, and adulation.
When a technicality prevents a winner from being determined, it is decided that a three-way tiebreaker will be held in California a week later. For the trek, Lightning hops into a semi-truck named (appropriately) Mack. En route, he falls off the truck and ends up in a run-down town known as Radiator Springs. In the heyday of Route 66, this was a thriving little community; since a freeway allowed cars to bypass it, Radiator Springs has gone downhill. Its few remaining citizens hope that somehow their little town will end up on a map again.
Lightning wants to get back to civilization, but he’s detained in the town after accidentally destroying the main road. Only when he fixes it will the local judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), allow him to leave. Several escape attempts prove unsuccessful. The only way out is to repave the road as quickly as possible, then floor it to California in time for the big race. What Lightning doesn’t count on is Doc being more knowledgeable than he looks. The ’51 Hudson Hornet holds a secret that proves to be very meaningful to the flashy red racecar later on.
A big part of Pixar’s success comes from its perfect casting. Consider the types of cars who live in Radiator Springs and the actors who voice them: George Carlin as a psychedelic VW van; Cheech Marin as a low-rider; Larry the Cable Guy as a rusty old tow truck. Solid casting helps give the characters immediate identities, which greatly benefits the story. All of these vehicles impact Lightning in one way or another. So does a Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt), who used to be an attorney, but now runs a motel where all the rooms look like traffic cones. (How a car got a law degree is left unaddressed, as is the fact that no one seems to be driving any of these cars.)
Cars is a story about finding pleasure in simplicity. Lightning initially dreams of a life filled with excitement, fame, and whatever kinds of hedonism automobiles might practice. His time in Radiator Springs teaches him lessons about friendship, respect, and the joys of small town life. He comes to realize that the town isn’t so bad after all. The plot mirrors Pixar’s own way of working. Whereas a lot of animated pictures try to gussy up their plots with lots of needless action and mayhem, Pixar always tells sweet, simple stories that are easily grasped by children and have surprising meaning for people of all ages.
As always, there is a lot of clever humor in the film. I like the moment where Lightning gets a cheap thrill out of seeing the pinstripe tattoo on Sally’s back end. (However, they missed a perfect opportunity to reference Owen Wilson’s last movie, Wedding Crashers, by having him say, “Might as well be a bullseye.”) Some of the jokes are up front, while others sneak up on you. I love the fact that governor of California is portrayed as a Hummer with an Austrian accent, for example. The humor also extends to the town itself, where everything is geared towards autos. The local movie theater is, of course, a drive-in, and the local restaurant serves oil and gas. Also, sit tight during the end credits for a hilarious sequence that parodies other Pixar films.
I suppose that after seven features, it goes without saying that Pixar has created a film that is breathtaking to look at. They’ve all been that way. They’ve also all had brilliant casting, wall-to-wall laughter, and an uplifting message at the end. This formula clearly works for them, so little else needs to be said. If you’ve enjoyed the other Pixar entries, then Cars won’t disappoint. It’s another grand slam from the masters of animation.
( 1/2 out of four)
Cars is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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