This computer-animated effort from Pixar is not quite up to the standards that the company established with their previous blockbusters like TOY STORY and THE INCREDIBLES, but it is still an engaging, worthwhile effort. Turning cars into anthropomorphic characters is simply not as intriguing as making toys come alive — it fails to ignite the imagination in the same way — yet the idea does yield ample opportunity for impressive visuals, including two exciting race scenes that bookend the movie, along with some incredible vistas in between.
The basic story drives a very familiar path. Lightening McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a hotshot rookie racecar about to make the big time, if he can win the big upcoming race in California. On the way, however, he is waylaid into a small town in the middle of the desert, where he ends up having to pay off his traffic violations by paving a new road that the locals hope will draw tourists. All McQueen can think about is getting out of town as fast as possible, in order to get to California, but you do not need an advanced degree in story structure or drama to guess that his enforced stay in Radiator Springs will teach him values, and by the end of the film he will end up falling in love with the small town that he used to despise.
Although the plot coasts along a predictable path, the verbal jokes and sight gags rev things up along the way, making the film enjoyable almost from start to finish, even if it never matches the pace of previous Pixar efforts. To some extent, the visuals outweigh the story (a rarity for a Pixar film). There is a clarity to the images, especially the backgrounds, that is stunning, making it easy to drive right into the movie’s imaginary world.
The car designs are fun, but they do not quite live up to the settings. Computer animation is the perfect medium for rendering mechanical objects with a semblance of life, but sometimes the characters look a bit too cartoony — even goofy. Fortunately, the voices help add a layer of personality that keeps the viewer engaged.
Technically, the animation is brilliant: not only are the races exciting; the quieter moments are filled with breath taking desert vistas that will unlock a trunk full of memories for anyone who has ever traveled across the county by road. In a way, the real heart of the film lies not with McQueen’s quest to win the big race, nor even with his maturation from arrogant hot shot to nice guy, but with the invocation of Route 66 and the many forgotten tourist stops along the way. Radiator Springs is an archetypal example of these attractions, where people making the cross-country trip along the old highway would stop and visit a museum or buy some souvenirs before moving along to the next destination. A beautiful musical montage halfway through the movie conveys a nostalgic wonder for this lost era, which came to an end with modern freeways offered a more direct, high-speed route.
CARS may not be the best film Pixar ever made, but it is a fun-filled effort that eschews the usual sarcasm and irony that have become mainstays of computer-animated features trying to appeal to older as well as younger viewers. We all know that American love their cars, and here is a film that reminds us why: it’s not all about getting to the destination; sometimes, the journey itself is where the joy is.
CARS (2006). Directed by John Lasseter & Joe Ranft. Screenplay by Dan Fogelman, Phil Lorin, Kiel Murray; additional screenplay material by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, Bonnie Hunt; sotry by Jorgen Klubien, Don Lake, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft. Voices: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, Joe Ranft, Michael Keaton
Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski