Friday, June 16, 2006

Cars / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Lightning McQueen: Owen Wilson
Doc Hudson: Paul Newman
Sally Carrera: Bonnie Hunt
Mater: Larry the Cable Guy
Ramone: Cheech Marin
Luigi: Tony Shalhoub
The King: Richard Petty
Sarge: Paul Dooley
Filmore: George Carlin
Chick Hicks: Michael Keaton
Mack: John Ratzenberger

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation present a film directed by John Lasseter. Written by Dan Fogelman, Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, and Jurgen Klubien. Based on a story by Lasseter, Ranft, and Klubien. Running time: 118 min. Rated G.

“Cars” is Pixar Animation Studio’s worst reviewed movie to date, according to Rotten Tomatoes, a national critics’ poll website. This seems like an unfair assessment of the film though, since, at 77% on their “tomatometer”, it’s still been better received than most films in current release. After Pixar’s endless stream of successes starting with 1995’s “Toy Story”, the critics may be wishing for a failure. Saying the movie is “good” seems to be the worst anyone can do.

But “Cars” is better than good. Like all of Pixar’s past efforts, it contains such strict attention to detail, commands such an intelligent delivery of its story, and reveals such universal insight into the imagination of the child in each and every one of us that “Cars” operates on its own stage altogether.

“Cars” takes place in a world populated entirely by cars. Well, there are jet planes and helicopters and vehicles of various types, but the car seems to be the dominant species. Little VW Beetle flies drive around on dusty windows and leave sets of tiny tire tracks. Tractors are this world’s cows, sitting in fields chewing cud until some juvenile truck comes and “tips” them. A harvester combine is the equivalent of a raging bull. And race cars are treated as royalty.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) is the up and comer on the Piston Cup circuit. As the story opens, Lightning winds up in a spectacular three way tie for the cup, alongside the reigning champion, The King (voiced by NASCAR legend Richard Petty), and long-time runner up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton, “White Noise”). A tie breaker race is set to be run in a week in California, and it’s believed that the first car to arrive will be The King’s successor for the sponsorship of the circuit’s biggest contributor, Dinoco.

After demeaning his pit crew into quitting, Lightning forces his big rig hauler, Mack (John Ratzenberger, TV’s “Cheers”), to drive through the night. During a particularly clever sequence in a film lined with them, some “Fast and the Furious” style street racers terrorize the drowsy Mack until he inadvertently dumps Lightning in the middle of the desert. Unaware of his cargo’s fate, Mack drives off, leaving Lightning stranded.

Lightning finds his way to Route 66 – the one-time heartline of the country – and the now nearly deserted town of Radiator Springs. Having never been coached in the etiquette of life outside the racing sect, Lightning causes some reckless destruction to this town upon his introduction to it, placing him under the scrutinous eye of the town patriarch Doc Hudson (voiced by Hollywood legend and auto racing enthusiast Paul Newman).

Doc sentences Lightning to repair the damages he caused. The town is populated by a collection of characters from all forms of auto life. There’s the VW hippie bus, Filmore (George Carlin, “Jersey Girl”), the Army Jeep surplus supplier, Sarge (Paul Dooley, “Sixteen Candles”), the hydraulics and paint specialist, Ramone (Cheech Marin, “Spy Kids”), the drive-in gas diner owner, Flo (Jenifer Lewis, Lifetime’s “Strong Medicine”), the Italian tire expert, Luigi (Tony Shalhoub, TV’s “Monk”), the grease monkey tow truck, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour”), and, of course, as a potential love interest, the attractive Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt, TV’s “Life with Bonnie”). As is expected, this rogue’s gallery of characters teaches Lightning the importance of friendship and nostalgia.

Despite the rather formulaic nature of the story, director and Pixar guru John Lasseter proves Gene Siskel’s rule that a movie’s success is not measured by what it’s about, but how it is about it. Lasseter is so dedicated to his setting and his characters that never does any of this seem hokey or contrived. He’s created such a complete universe, in such vivid detail, that just to behold the film is to find enjoyment in it.

When I first saw the teaser for this film, I was afraid that Pixar had finally picked a lemon with its talking cars, but the characters are all so solid and the dialogue so clever that you don’t have to be a child to buy this convention. And once again, Pixar provides a film appealing to all ages; we really all love cars, no matter what age we are.

Also be sure to stick around for the credit cookies. The cars reopen the Radiator Springs drive-in movie theater and watch a hilarious retrospective of parallel car universe Pixar classics and Mack presents a humorous observation about one of the voice-over artists. Plus, there’s a tribute to the late Joe Ranft, Pixar's head of story for over a decade.

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