Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry The Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, George Carlin, Michael Keaton, John Ratzenberger, Jeremy Piven, Bob Costas, Tom Magliozzi, Ray Magliozzi, Mario Andretti
Written by: Robert L. Baird, Dan Fogelman, Dan Gerson, Jorgen Klubien, John Lasseter, Philip Loren, Kiel Murray, Joe Ranft
Directed by: John Lasseter
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 116
Date: 03/14/2006

Cars (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Gear Factor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Pixar people not only broke through and gave us our first, dazzling, computer animated feature (Toy Story), but they continue to raise the bar, telling stories first while other studios still concentrate on jangling noise and bad jokes.

Sometimes, however, even the master doesn't know everything. Pixar's seventh feature film Cars arrives with more of a sputter than a zoom. It's a skid, if not entirely a blowout.

Pixar's best films so far have evoked and built from dire situations, such as the lawsuits that drove the superheroes out of business in The Incredibles (2004) or the mere fact of growing up and leaving childhood things behind in Toy Story 2 (1999).

At their worst, they give us flat, flawed personality traits that can be easily mended before the two-hour mark, such as Marlin's agoraphobia in Finding Nemo (2003). Fortunately, that film still contained a chest otherwise full of treasures.

Not so with Cars. Here we get Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), an up-and-coming rookie racecar with an acute case of arrogance. (And why shouldn't he be, named after the ultra-cool star of Le Mans?) In a couple of subplots, we get a former racing champ, Doc Hudson (voiced by real-life racer Paul Newman), hiding from his former glory, and the sad story of Route 66, bypassed for a soulless interstate.

Humans are absent from this world; cars show up to watch other cars race. After finishing in a three-way tie with the current champ and an also-ran with a streak of bad sportsmanship (voiced by Michael Keaton), Lightning must get to California for a tie-breaker. The winner gets the all-important Piston Cup, plus a slick merchandizing deal. Due to his arrogance, Lighting finds himself waylaid in the flyspeck burg Radiator Springs, arrested and forced to fix the road he damaged during his arrival.

Anyone who has been to the movies once or twice can figure out that Lightning gets a soul-reviving dose of old-timey, jes-folks, and learns how to behave like a proper gentle-car once again. Of course, there's a girl, a lovely Porsche (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) who left behind big city lawyering for small town spirituality.

This would be just fine, if the movie surprised us even once. Couldn't its eight screenwriters have come up with something that wasn't already used in Doc Hollywood (1991)?

Yet, Pixar still manages to show why they're the champions with a whole new batch of digital beauties. If there is such a thing as great cinematography in an animated film, Cars has it; it has a true appreciation for light, from the bright, night-defying stadium glare of the big race, to the warm, morning sun in the desert flats. One shot of a waterfall is as breathtaking as anything photographed in reality. It also gets a sense of speed without chaos -- no shaky cam -- whether Lightning is dusting someone on the track or simply viewing the passing scenery.

Ultimately, the film's biggest crime is merely aiming for the younger audience that may have been stymied by the family dynamics in The Incredibles. But parents will miss out instead. The only concession to grown-ups is a small, funny cameo by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a.k.a. the "Car Talk" guys from NPR. "Don't drive like my brother!"

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