Look closely at the little flying bugs buzzing and bumping in the hot light of the desert. They are, of course, Bugs: VW Bugs with wings. In the world of this story, all of the characters are cars and all of the world around them is car-iffic. Even the buttes of Monument Valley — excuse me, I mean Ornament Valley — are shaped like car features.
It has all of the flawless technical facility we have come to rely on from Pixar, but this time the story does not quite match the wow-factor of the visuals. The result is perfectly entertaining but it does not have the power of Finding Nemo or The Incredibles. Those films tapped into profound themes about the way parents and children interact with the big, scary outside world where danger and adventure are. “Cars” has a standard story about friendship and standard characters — the veteran, the upstart, the comic bumpkin who knows things that the city slicker still has to learn, and the story sags a bit in the middle. As far as the script goes, “Cars” is a little bit pedestrian.
It starts with the biggest race of the year. All eyes are on three competitors — the reigning champion (voiced by race car veteran Richard Petty), perennial runner-up Chick Hicks (voice of Michael Keaton), and the rookie, Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), who takes pride in being a loner. A three-way tie means there has to be another race, one of the biggest ever, to take place a week later, in California.
Lightning is in a hurry to get to there early so he can ingratiate himself with the champion’s sponsor, but he gets sidetracked and ends up in a little town called Radiator Springs, far from the interstate highway. He gets into trouble and the local judge (voice of Paul Newman) sentences him to repairing the road before he can leave. With the help of a sweet-natured tow truck named Tow Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) and a spirited blue Porsche with a law degree who runs the local motel (voice of Bonnie Hunt), Lighting learns some lessons about friendship, cooperation, and even about racing and what it really means to win.
Pixar, as always, creates a thrillingly imaginative but always believeable world with eye-filling details. We believe these are cars, but we also believe they are characters. They have all of the properties of steel and paint and rubber but all of the expressiveness of human eyes and mouths and even noses. Wilson’s slacker surf bum voice is just right for Lightning and Newman gives Doc warmth and wisdom. But the story and characters are not as engrossing as the visuals. The script has a too-many-cooks feeling and it’s about fifteen minutes too long, ten of which is mostly Larry the Cable Guy. And there’s something a little hollow in the endorsement of homespun, non-commercial values in a film so relentlessly marketed, its endorsement of low-tech delivered through technology that is many degrees of separation from paintbrush and cel. Pixar’s lesser effort still beats most of what plays in theaters, but we realize during the credit sequence that it has more heart and humor than the movie that came before it.
Parents should know that there is some brief G-rated crude language and mild crude humor and vandalism. Characters are in peril and there is some mild violence, but no one gets hurt.
Families who see this movie should talk about how different ways of saying “yeah, okay” can mean different things. Why did Lightning think he liked to do things by himself? Doc and Sally had different reasons for coming to Radiator Springs. What were they? Families who see this film should also talk about their favorite car trips and where they would like to go on the next one. They can find out more about Route 66 here or here.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the other Pixar films, including A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 1 and 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. They will also enjoy other family movies featuring cars, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Herbie movies, starting with The Love Bug, and The Great Race.