A dismal year for animated releases (i.e. "Ice Age: The Meltdown
," "The Wild
," "Over the Hedge
," all disposable) finally finds a ray of promise with "Cars." On a relative off-day, Pixar is still usually far superior to what the rest of the studios are putting out and posing as quality animated features for the entire family. Fortunately, "Cars" may be the strongest effort from Pixar Studios, to datethe most aesthetically beautiful, the most soundly written, and maybe, just maybe, the most meaningful. Directed by John Lasseter (1999's "Toy Story 2
"), "Cars" doesn't necessarily have the boundless originality of, say, 2001's "Monsters, Inc.
" or 2004's "The Incredibles
," but it is a fuller, more thoughtful experience, equalling and even surpassing the loftier heights set by the aforementioned "Toy Story 2
" and 2003's "Finding Nemo
." Equipped with unhurried pacing and a restrained tone to go along with his truthful message of slowing down one's life enough to respect and take heed of his or her surroundings, Lasseter is in firm command of his stirring premise and delightful characters. Younger children will be enamored with the rainbow colors of the flawless computer animation, the race car driving, and the unforced comic relief. As for older children and adults, the experience shall be nothing short of absorbing, charming, lyrical, and even deeply touching.
With "Cars," director John Lasseter and screenwriter Dan Fogelman reimagine the world with a population consisting of nothing but living, breathing automobiles (and a few other forms of transportation). For slick, shiny hot-shot stock car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), professional racing is his passion. While adored on a surface level by gushing fans, he doesn't have any real friends and no one to share his fast-paced life witha fact only crystallized after he ties with two other cars for the Piston Cup and must travel to Los Angeles for a championship race-off.
On his way out West, Lightning loses his chauffeur and finds himself veering from the Interstate and onto the mostly forgotten Route 66. When an altercation leads to the destruction of a road in Radiator Springs, Lightning must remain in the once-bustling, now-sleepy town while he repairs the mess he has made. While there, he befriends lovable redneck tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), bonds with crusty town judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), falls in love with the wise, cute Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), and ultimately learns there is far more to life than winning races.
What sets Pixar above the rest in the animated market is that, while other studios make cartoons, Pixar specializes in making films. "Cars" is one for the ages. There is a low-key, laid-back irresistibility to the proceedings that proves one-of-a-kind; whereas other animated movies typically can't resist a lot of bathroom humor and lame pop-culture references in a failed attempt to be cool and lure the kiddie market, Pixar knows that the value of a universal story, relatable characters, and smart, poignantly-felt writing are the true keys to longevity. With that said, comic inspiration comes quickly and subtly, so sly that audiences won't possibly be able to catch everything on first viewing. Many of the jokes will go over the heads of children, who will latch on instead to the dizzyingly beautiful animation and the broad, silly personality of Mater. They will also get a kick out of a scene where Lightning and Mater go tractor-tippinga wickedly funny play on cow-tipping. Be sure to stay for the end credits too, which houses the funniest and most ingenious gag of all (one hint: it delightfully harkens back to past Pixar efforts).
Lest one think "Cars" is nothing but a series of comedic fireballs, the underlying core of the film is a bit more serious, paying tribute to the majesty and freedom of the open road and the tendency in modern times for people (or in this case, cars) to live such busy, self-involved lives that they forget to stop every once in a while and appreciate what is around them. There's a tragedy and truth brought to this notion that perfectly encapsulates who Lightning is at the start of the film, making his gradual transformation into someone who is less selfish and more attune to the beauty of what surrounds him all the more meaningful. Accordingly, the best scenes in "Cars" are those set on the roads of America; they are not only stunningly, almost photo-realistically animated, but also capture that freeing feeling of driving cross country with the world at your fingertips. There is a marvelously handled, indelibly moving montage midway through set to James Taylor's "Our Town" that nostalgically flashes back to the heyday of Radiator Springs before showing how the town became a lost relic once the fast Interstate was built and traffic stopped coming on scenic Route 66. The setup and emotions of this sequence are obviously inspired by a similar scene in "Toy Story 2
" set to Sarah McLachlan's "When She Loved Me," but it works just as well here and may arouse waterworks in the viewer.
"Cars" is wholly satisfying and layered with less obvious themes and developments than the average animated movie. The characters, too, are a vividly bunch, as inspired as in previous Pixar ventures. Among the supporting participants, a warm and bubbly Bonnie Hunt (2005's "Cheaper by the Dozen 2
") and, surprisingly, an adorable Larry the Cable Guy stand out as the down-to-earth Sally and Cousin Eddie-like Mater. In his final film work, Paul Newman (2002's "Road to Perdition
") brings a stately authority and wistful regret to the role of Doc Hudson. Finally, as protagonist Lightning McQueen, Owen Wilson (2005's "Wedding Crashers
") is exceptional and lively, both in the early scenes of his bloated ego and later on as he learns the error of his ways and the importance that loved ones and cherished places have over empty fortune and fame. No matter where Lightning is on his road to self-discovery, Wilson makes certain that the role is one worth caring about.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle "Cars" has in front of it is that it's hard to warm up to automobiles as cuddly living creatures, even ones with eyes on their windshields. Cars are cold, steely and mechanical, while characters in an animated film should be anything but. Then again, many kids love toy cars and trucks, so the idea of them being alive could just be their dream come true. Credit director John Lasseter for finding a way to rise above this issue enough that it doesn't impair the production in any way. He lends each car his or her own personality, and has made a motion picture of gentility and sweetness besides. Breaking ground in the competitive animation arena, both in terms of its slice-of-life storytelling and in the picturesque, gorgeously rendered animation itself, "Cars" is well worth your time, and then worth it again for a second and third viewingsomething that can't be said about any other animated family pic since 2004's "The Polar Express