Even the most aerodynamic, high-octane hot rod sometimes needs a timing adjustment, and such is the case with Cars. With gas at $3 a gallon and anti-automotive documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car? making the art-house circuit, cars seem less like a boon than a blight on the face of the America.
Those swell computer-animators at Pixar can apparently make a witty, heartwarming film about any kind of animal or object, however unlikely -- dairy products, packing material, sub-atomic particles, you name it. Cars lags a little behind the company's modern masterpieces like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, but under the hood it reveals a heart as big as the open road.
In Cars' imaginary world, automobiles talk and think, tractors behave like bovines and even tiny, winged VW Beetles buzz around with fluorescent lights. Nevertheless, Cars takes place in the media-saturated modern-day U.S. of A., and recounts a familiar sort of tale of an arrogant hot-shot who unwillingly falls in love with small-town values.
After a major race at the "Motor Speedway of the South," red racing rookie Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) must get to California within a week to clinch a big sponsorship deal, a prize that amusingly tweaks NASCAR's obsession with brand names. Despite being a (figuratively) driven athlete, Lightning disdains the work of his pit crew and the feelings of his loyal but rusted-out fans.
A series of mishaps land Lightning in the impound yard of Radiator Springs, a sleepy tourist trap on Route 66, the legendary but neglected "mother road." Lightning accepts a sentence of community service from Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past in the racing circuit. Newman's gruff, gravelly, somewhat haunted voice helps give some rough texture to the film's sleek images.
Lightning slowly befriends the eccentric townies, whose makes, models and professions hinge on automotive puns, like Fillmore (George Carlin), a 1960s hippie van who sells organic fuel. Lightning also starts falling for Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a Porsche who manages a motor lodge that offers "a Lincoln Continental breakfast." Called The Crazy Cone, Sally's place evokes those antique teepee-motif motels, only with giant traffic cones for individual rooms. In a weird, beautiful touch, just past the town limits stands "Ornament Valley," a kind of Monument Valley with giant mesas that resemble the hoods of classic cars.
Pixar's detail work with computer animation proves lovelier than ever, and you can sit back to admire the ways that the cars gleam and reflect, or the depth of the night skies, or the haze of desert horizons. In its vision of America's byways past and present, Cars offers itself as a kind of cinematic tribute and museum to the beloved, kitschy roadside attractions of yesteryear.
A horrid Randy Newman song ("Our Town," sung by James Taylor) accompanies a montage of how the high-speed interstates killed off Route 66 and its towns (which only need Wal-Mart to finish the job). But it provides a necessary counterpoint to the film's most charming scene, when Radiator Springs enjoys a little neon-lit urban renewal, accompanied by the Chords' "Sh-Boom." Director John Lasseter (who helmed both Toy Story movies) shows a palpable fondness for an extinct kind of Americana and car culture that includes cruising on Saturday night and the lyrics of the song "Route 66." Leisurely driving may be both wasteful and hard on the environment, but Cars sounds a siren call to motoring beyond traffic gridlock.
Cars' good cheer keeps you from dwelling on an assembly-line quality to the plot's clichés. You probably knew that Pixar's previous films would end happily, but they never proved as predictable as Cars turns out to be. Still, between Lasseter's nostalgia and the film's efficiency with funny one-liners, Cars can rev up the spirits of the most road-weary commuter. It seems a shame to see it anywhere other than at a drive-in.