Animation fans can relax now that Disney and Pixar have kissed and made up. Pixar’s very public griping about Disney (Pixar did all the work, while Disney reaped all the benefits) came to an end earlier this year with Disney buying out Pixar and basically handing over all its operations to the animation studio. It was the most logical decision Disney could make to save its own bacon. While Pixar was allowing Disney to distribute (and take the lion’s share of the profits from) its smash hits like Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles, Disney was cranking out chintzy garbage like Cinderella II, The Second Jungle Book and Return to Neverland.
But, after a year or so of feuding, we are finally rewarded with a new Disney/Pixar film, the fast-paced auto-centric adventure Cars.
Initial trailers for the film (which hit theaters a looong time ago) fueled a bit of skepticism among viewers. Talking cars? Was this really the most interesting idea Pixar had left in its story vault? Hadn’t we already seen this in an endless string of Chevron commercials? Are NASCAR fans really that hungry for animated family entertainment? Should Larry the Cable Guy, star of Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector really be rewarded with another movie?
Admittedly, Cars doesn’t start off with the most clever concept Pixar has ever dreamed up. But the film’s triumphant showing at the finish line more than proves Pixar can handle any assignment thrown its way.
Cars takes place in a world much like our own, only rather than being filled with people, it’s populated by animated automobiles. Instead of sports announcer Darrell Waltrip, they’ve got sports announcer Darrell Cartrip. Instead of TV comedian Jay Leno, they’ve got TV comedian Jay Limo. (OK, so the puns aren’t the selling point of this movie.)
In this well-oiled world, we meet a cocky stock car named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson). Lightning is vying for the much-coveted Piston Cup Championship against longtime, about-to-retire champ Strip Weathers (voiced by stock car legend Richard Petty) and scheming runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). Headstrong and selfish, Lightning chases off pit crew after pit crew, believing he’s the star of a one-man show. For him, winning the Piston Cup means a lifetime of fame, fortune and a cushy contract with top racing sponsor Dinoco. Naturally, our protagonist is cruising for a lesson in humility.
He gets it while on a trip to California for the big race. Lost somewhere in the desert Southwest, Lightning gets nabbed for speeding through the tiny town of Radiator Springs. Thanks to a high-speed chase that tears up the town’s main drag, Lightning is sentenced to repave the road as his community service. While stuck in Radiator Springs, he comes to know the town’s oddball inhabitants, including a dim-witted tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), a grumpy country doctor (Paul Newman), a hippie-dippy VW bus (George Carlin), a tricked-out lowrider (Cheech Marin) and a racy little Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt).
The road that Cars stakes out for itself is fairly predictable. Naturally, during the course of his stay in Radiator Springs, Lightning learns a lesson in selflessness and community. With the big race looming, Lightning becomes determined to help out his new friends and their struggling town.
Cars is aimed largely at the red state, redneck audiences (the soundtrack is littered with Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts, the voicecast is rounded out by such trailer park saints as Mario Andretti, Humpy Wheeler, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Schumacher), but it still packs an unmistakable collateral appeal. Formulaic as it may be, Cars races through all the gears in just the right order. In any other hands, Cars would have been forgettable and charmless. Thanks to director John Lasseter (Toy Story) and his crew, the film is touching, amusing and brilliantly designed. Kudos to the atypical voicecast as well, hiring Bonnie Hunt as the love interest when lesser studio executive would have been demanding Jessica Simpson. It seems unlikely that kids will latch on to the film’s nostalgic plea for the revivification of Old Route 66, but adults will probably appreciate the sentiment.
Honestly, Cars doesn’t represent Pixar’s finest hour. (The film is a bit long and a tad lacking in laugh-out-loud humor. Plus, automobiles simply fall short of the huggable appeal of toy cowboys and fuzzy purple monsters.) Still, it’s easily the best family film you’ll see this summer--proof positive that Pixar can pass all the other animation companies in second gear.