This new picture from the computer-animation wizards that made “Monsters, Inc.,” “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo” and the director-writer of “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2” is going to be a smash at the boxoffice and a long-term perennial on DVD; if any movie is critic-proof, “Cars” is it. Not only does it have the Disney-Pixar imprimatur behind it, but a huge advertising campaign, complete with multiple tie-ins. And as if that weren’t enough, it profits from the current popularity of the NASCAR phenomenon, which it obviously plays off.
But the fact of the matter is that while “Cars” is enjoyable enough, and certainly well made, it’s no classic. For one thing, it goes on too long–nearly two hours, in fact. And for another, for all the effort that obviously went into it, it offers remarkably little that feels new. Visually it’s awfully reminiscent of those thirty-second Chevron commercials featuring talking cars; indeed, it’s like an expanded version of them. And from the narrative standpoint, it doesn’t do much more than regurgitate what’s become the standard-issue story of a brash, self-centered fellow who ultimately learns to respect the people (or critters) he’s been looking down on, finding that friends and (extended) family and fair-dealing are more important–and more fulfilling–than petty ambition. Though the details are different, it’s essentially the same shtick already on display in “Over the Hedge,” to name but the most recent example of the plot. So these “Cars” seem somewhat used.
This time around the track, the world that hosts the action is a human-free one in which anthropomorphic cars are the denizens (a pretty creepy notion, actually, especially since the world boasts the same sort of structures as the “real” one, including–in the little desert town where most of the action takes place–one mainstreet joint with a neon sign that reads “Eats,” an advertisement that might cause more morbid and erudite cineastes to recall the American title of Peter Weir’s 1974 movie, “The Cars That Eat People”). The plucky hero who needs a life lesson is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a first-year rookie racing car that manages to tie his foremost rivals, veteran King (Richard Petty) and ruthless perpetual runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), in the championship race. The tie requires a run-off, and along the way to the track McQueen gets separated from his transport truck Mack (John Ratzenberger) and winds up in Radiator Flats, a dying burg now off the interstate, where he’s arrested for tearing up a road and sentenced to repave it by the stern town judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). Over the course of his stay he gets a buddy in goofy rust-bucket tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a girlfriend in Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a spiffy Porsche who runs a motel. There are, of course, a raft of supporting vehicles: hippie RV Fillmore (George Carlin), the hard-nosed vet Sarge (Paul Dooley) that he’s always arguing with, low-rider Ramone (Cheech Marin), his wife Flo (Jenifer Lewis), tire-shop owner Luigi (Tony Shaloub) and the sheriff (Michael Wallis). The big local secret is that Doc Hudson was once a champion racer himself, from whom Lightning can learn a few tricks of the trade. But, of course, the bigger issue is whether Lightning will come to realize that these apparent down-and-outers are his real friends, that Radiator Flats is where he’s meant to be, and that when it comes to the big race, winning isn’t as important as good sportsmanship (or more properly, sportscarship).
There’s no surprise in how these questions are answered, but as director John Lasseter points out rather obviously in his press-kit discussion of the movie, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination; and along the way “Cars” makes for a pleasant diversion, with eye-catching animation, some catchy gags and good inside jokes, even if at times the going gets a mite lethargic. (After the ninety-minute point, you might catch yourself asking, “Are we there yet?”) Wilson makes an amiable hero, although his voice work is less distinctive than you might have expected; Newman’s gruff tones, on the other hand, are unmistakable, but his delivery is strangely pallid. Of the others, the standouts are certainly Shalhoub, who gets plenty of laughs with his Italian shtick, and Larry the Cable Guy, who gets even more with his dim-bulb country-boy routine. Without these two, “Cars” would be a very trying ride.
Kids will go gaga over this movie–it may well spur a new run on Hot Wheels at the toy store–and parents will generally be amused, if not amazed, by the jokes it aims over their children’s heads at them. But though the tykes might be a little antsy after more than 100 minutes in their seats, be sure to stick around for the closing credits, which actually contain some of the picture’s funniest material. Today’s Hollywood movies usually don’t save the best for last, but this is one that does.