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).

Lightning McQueen, the star of the show, as voiced by Owen Wilson

Lightning McQueen, the star of the show, as voiced by Owen Wilson

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.

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Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and McQueen have a little chat

Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and McQueen have a little chat

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.

Then there are the races, particularly the opening sequence, an adrenaline rush that trumps the pod race in Star Wars Episode I. Lasseter and company play smartly with the camera angles, creating a kinetic hyper-reality that places viewers on the track amid all the cars. It's thrilling to behold and the most obvious examples of considerable effort by the animators.

But above all that are the jaw-dropping backgrounds that so beautifully capture scenic Route 66, particularly the Grand Canyon and a picturesque waterfall drive near Radiator Springs. Floating dust, falling leaves, splashing mud—it's remarkable how Pixar has bridged the gap between characters that look so artificial (though tangible) and environments that seem so real, coexisting in the same world. Cars plays extremely well on the big screen—pity that it's not being shown on IMAX screens.

Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) joins McQueen for a ride in the country

Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) joins McQueen for a ride in the country

Yet in spite of all this, as Incredibles writer/director Brad Bird once put it, story is king. And it's rather ironic (or prophetic?) that Pixar cofounder Steve Jobs said in promotion of Cars that, "No amount of special effects can make a bad story into a good story." In fairness, this isn't a bad story, but it's a bit hokey, and not nearly as imaginative as Pixar's previous triumphs.

Though we've seen old animation involving toys, fish, monsters, and superheroes before, Pixar gave a fresh and inventive spin in developing those worlds. With Cars, it doesn't feel like anything particularly new. The characters are able to perform simple day-to-day actions by pushing buttons and switches with their tires. A tire shop is modeled to look like a shoe store. Traffic cone shaped garages serve as motel rooms. Fillmore the Volkswagen van is voiced by George Carlin as an aging hippie with a special "organic blend" of gasoline. All well and good, yet it's seemingly old hat in comparison to Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo—more Nickelodeon in scope than Pixar.

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Considering how laugh-out-loud funny most computer-animated films are these days, it was also surprising to sit through Cars with minimal chuckles. Pixar banked their hopes on Larry the Cable Guy, but his delivery and characterization don't have the broad appeal to make Mater anything more than likeable (if not annoying). The best thing about him is his name—Tow Mater. Seriously, how many times can someone say "Dad gum!" before it wears thin?

McQueen passes Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and The King (Richard Petty)

McQueen passes Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and The King (Richard Petty)

A lengthy scene of "cow"-tipping is fun for about thirty seconds until it begins to feel like stretched B-material. McQueen's racing motto is a pun on Muhammad Ali: "Built like a Cadillac, stings like a Beemer." And most of the characters are reduced to walk-on stereotypes rather than detailed supporting players. It all feels a bit too obvious, mostly relying on an ignorant redneck comment from Mater or McQueen driving into a cactus-populated ravine as gags. It's the little touches that get the biggest laughs ("Free Bird!"), particularly some inside humor during the end credits. Otherwise, if it's laughs you want, try this summer's other big animation blockbuster Over the Hedge (which is admittedly cruder with its PG rating).

If I seem too cynical or jaded for a movie ultimately aimed at children, bear in mind that I think Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and The Incredibles are some of the finest movies made in the last five years. For that matter, there are key scenes in most all of Pixar's films that still get me choked up years later. Those movies told compelling stories with believable characters, despite the fantastic settings. It's the broad appeal to both kids and adults that have ultimately made these movies so enormously successful, elevating them beyond simple children's movies.

Cars still deserves the benefit of the doubt in its kid appeal, though at nearly two hours, it's the longest film Pixar has ever made. And for a movie that's supposedly about fast cars, it's not particularly exciting beyond the two races. A good chunk of the story's middle is spent on McQueen repaving a street, which is about as thrilling as drying paint and peeling linoleum. This certainly relates to the movie's message about taking life slow, but does that necessarily make it a fun film?

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Appropriately enough, the difference between Cars and its Pixar brethren is like taking kids to see the Grand Canyon instead of Disney World. It's something beautiful to behold while imparting some solid life lessons, and the family is ultimately better off because of it. But it's not necessarily the place to go if you're looking for an exciting thrill ride or humorous entertainment.

Talk About It

  Discussion starters
  1. Lightning McQueen is obsessed the fame and fortune of winning races. Is there anything inherently wrong with success—winning a race, landing an endorsement deal, earning the admiration of others? Where does McQueen go too far with his pursuits?

  2. Consider McQueen's treatment of his pit crew at the beginning of the film. What does Cars have to say about the importance of community and relationships? How might have things been different if McQueen submitted to the advice of a mentor? Is there such a mentor at the end of Cars? If so, what does McQueen learn from him?

  3. What do you think about the film's message concerning Route 66? Do you think it's fair what happened to towns like Radiator Springs? Should we be doing a better job at preserving everything of cultural significance from our history? Or do some things get traded in for the sake of progress?

  4. What does Cars have to say about our treatment of elders? Do you think our society respects the wisdom of those older than us, or do we too carelessly dismiss them for the next big thing?

  5. The primary message of Cars is that life is about the journey and not winning the race. How does the parable of cars and its literal race apply to practical living for people? How does it apply spiritually as Christians? See 1 Corinthians 9:23-25, Philippians 3:12-21, and Hebrews 12:1-3.

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Cars is rated G and is generally suitable for all audiences. Some of the characters use backfire exhaust to simulate flatulence, and Lightning notices some pinstripe detail on the female lead's trunk that resembles the kind of tattoo that some flirtatious girls sport with low riding jeans. Otherwise, parents needn't worry about content as much as whether their kids will enjoy a relatively lengthy animated feature that's rather slow-paced in the middle.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 06/15/06

What has four wheels, a bright yellow lightning bolt, and the voice of Owen Wilson?

Lightning McQueen! He's the racecar with an attitude who leads a whole new cast of car-toon characters in Pixar's latest crowd-pleaser.

Pixar's going to need a bigger parking lot, as Cars has earned itself a place next to such famous show-mobiles as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. Cars finished first at the box office last week, raking in more than $60 million, and pleasing fans and critics alike.

It opens with a bang. McQueen puts the pedal to the metal, on his way to a big race, and crashes off the road into the town of Radiator Springs. And it's not just any crash—he damages a bunch of stuff belonging to the inhabitants of that small town. So, McQueen is sentenced to community service, with a bunch of lessons to learn before his return to the racetrack.

While Cars also features the voices of Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Michael Keaton, and Tony Shaloub, it's easy to see that the real stars are the Pixar animators and storytellers.

So, how does it size up to other Pixar flicks?

"Cars could well be Pixar's least satisfying project to date," says Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies). But he adds, "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."

Breimeier goes on to praise the film's animation as a new peak for Pixar. But the story? "If [the story] 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." He notes that the film delivers "some terrific lessons," but those lessons "don't necessarily add up to a terrific story. … [I]t's a bit hokey, and not nearly as imaginative as Pixar's previous triumphs."

Pixar fan Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is much more enthusiastic. "Cars is Pixar's most improbable success to date, a film that could easily have misfired, but somehow does not. … Offbeat and counter-intuitive, Cars finds a quirky creative groove and an emotional center that eluded the earlier Lasseter effort."

How significant is this? Greydanus says, "Cars doesn't exceed expectations, but it continues the winningest streak in Hollywood history with a film that any other creative team in Hollywood would kill to have be the weakest of their last five films."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is also pleased. "Pixar continues to raise the bar with Cars, a delightful, family-friendly film with a full tank of humor and emotion that is likely to leave its summer competition in the dust. … [G]iven our hectic world of fast food, express lanes and high-speed Internet access, the film's gentle message charmingly reminds us that on the highway of life it is important to slow down and appreciate the scenery."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says it's "a terrific story. It's a blast to watch … and it's loaded with positive messages about selflessness, slowing down, enjoying life and learning how to be a good friend. In a world where image-conscious superstar athletes often hog the spotlight, Cars reminds us why being a team player is ultimately more satisfying—and significant—than being the center of attention."

"Cars has all the elements of an Oscar-winning movie," raves Lisa Rice (Crosswalk). "[A] perfect script with humor and heart, an all-star cast, an adorable love story, state-of-the-art special effects and a gripping score by a number of talented musicians. … The cars seem like people with whom you fall in love, and the love story is better than anything that's on the silver screen this summer."

Mainstream critics are hoping the film wins Motor Trend's Movie of the Year award.

from Film Forum, 06/29/06

Greg Tubbs (Ethics Daily) calls it a "hybrid of a different and delightful kind. It combines the sleek, 'wow'-worthy visuals of Pixar's computer animation with the rich, old-fashioned storytelling of classic Disney. … Pop the hood on Cars and you'll find an engine purring with soul, humor and solid life-lessons, fueled by pure heart."

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Directed By
John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
Run Time
1 hour 57 minutes
Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman
Theatre Release
June 09, 2006 by Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures
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