Celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, Pixar Animation Studios—recently acquired by Walt Disney Pictures—has earned a reputation that has not only made them pioneers in computer animation, but also equated their name with excellence in entertainment. After a long string of Oscar-winning short films, Pixar kept hitting home runs with Toy Story (1995), A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and The Incredibles (2004).
With that resume, it would seem that Pixar can do no wrong, and their seventh feature is destined to become another hit at the box office. Still, Cars could well be Pixar's least satisfying project to date.
Not that all audiences will be disappointed. Families with young boys enchanted by cars will find a lot to love in this animated world completely populated with automobiles instead of humans. And as such, the athletes are represented by racecars like Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie hotshot so cocky that he thinks he doesn't need a crew chief or pit team. Self-driven by success and self-absorbed with celebrity, he earns a place as a finalist in the championship race for the Piston Cup, competing against The King (legendary racer Richard Petty) and the even more ruthless Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton).
But en route to the big race, McQueen gets separated from his transport through a series of improbable (and rather convoluted) circumstances. His late-night panic attack to get back on track crashes him in the sleepy Southwestern town of Radiator Springs off of historic Route 66, where he accidentally causes much damage to public property. Gruff town judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) sentences McQueen to community service—to repave the road he tore up. While doing his time in the following days, McQueen befriends the town's other residents, including dopey tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and sleek Porsche Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). It's a rural experience that quickly teaches McQueen that there are more important things to life than trophies and corporate sponsorships.
If any of that sounds familiar, it's fortunate for director John Lasseter and his fellow screenwriters that no kids in the audience will recognize this as a retread of Doc Hollywood, the formulaic 1991 hit starring Michael J. Fox. For sure, there are some terrific lessons to be gleaned from Cars—investing selflessly in the lives of others, respecting our history and our elders, being a Good Samaritan to those in need, and most of all, learning to run a good race in life rather than live only for the finish line. But terrific life lessons don't necessarily add up to a terrific story.
Over the years, two general qualities have placed Pixar's films head and shoulders above the endless parade of other computer animated movies of the month: they deliver state-of-the-art animation and an inventive storyline laced with a terrific sense of humor. Cars gets it only half right.
At this point, it's a sure bet to win an Oscar for Best Animated Film; the characters—yes, the cars—are amazingly life-like. Metallic reflections and malleable plastics make these autos look tangible enough to pluck from the screen, and the animators pour enough expressions into the cars' faces and actions to keep the characters from behaving too stiffly—including a few celebrity parodies that are cleverly rendered.