GIVEN that Americans love automobiles and animated films, it's no shock that a feature-length cartoon called "Cars" turned out so well. The source of this supremely engaging film's curb appeal, however, is a most pleasant surprise.
For in the years since Pixar guru John Lasseter last directed a film ("Toy Story 2" in 1999), the trend in the field has been to go the wiseguy route. Disney, Fox, DreamWorks and others have led us to equate computer animation with bulletproof repartee and snappy patter, turning every creature on the planet into a Borscht Belt comedian. It's not that those films haven't been a treat, or that "Cars" doesn't have its share of gags that make you laugh out loud. But Lasseter's latest is not powered by glibness and speed but by warmth, emotion and good-hearted charm. It offers the kinds of sensations all Hollywood once did, and it makes us remember why those films made us care.
Like those movies, "Cars" does this with a plot whose finish line can be seen miles away. It's the story of a self-absorbed hotshot racer named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who takes an unexpected detour and learns what is really important in life.
One of the hidden pleasures of "Cars" is the gradual realization that our journey as an audience is more like McQueen's than we want to admit, that what is happening to Lightning is happening to us as well. We too may initially feel that we don't have the time or interest for a film like this. But as we downshift our preconceptions and get into the spirit of the movie, we find it's just the thing we've been needing.
Though six writers, including Lasseter and the film's co-director, Joe Ranft, are credited with the "Cars" script, the essence of the film flows from Lasseter, from the things he cares about and enjoys. Those include a love of things automotive that began when he was a teenager working at the Whittier Chevrolet dealership that employed his father.
Because it is intent on taking its time, "Cars" may seem slow getting started. What pulls us in gradually and keeps us involved is Lasseter's great gift for character, his ability to create cars that don't just have personality but are also bright and funny personalities in their own right.
Lightning McQueen, Wilson's affable voice notwithstanding, is initially the least likable of the lot. A top contender for the Piston Cup, a racer given to boasting "I eat losers for breakfast," Lightning is the arrogant rookie sensation who doesn't believe he needs anyone else in his life.
What he does think he needs is a new sponsor. Embarrassed by his association with Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze (voiced by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of "Car Talk" on National Public Radio), purveyors of "Medicated Bumper Ointment," he finds the road to a higher class of sponsor involves a big race with Strip Weathers, a.k.a. "The King" (racing ace Richard Petty) and unfriendly Chick "Thunder" Hicks (Michael Keaton), a car so evil he's sponsored by HBT, Hostile Bank Takeovers.
On his way to that race, Lightning is forced to spend considerable time in Radiator Springs, "Gateway to Ornament Valley," a small Western town on old Route 66 now hanging on for dear life, a place time -- and the big interstate freeway system -- has passed by.
Here he meets a whole gang of folks who know how to make you smile.
There's aging hippie Filmore (George Carlin), a VW bus with a license plate for a hipster goatee and a penchant for selling organic fuel. There's racing snob Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) of Luigi's Casa Della Tires, "Home of the Leaning Tower of Tires."
On the more serious side, there is cranky Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the town judge who is given to growling "I want his hood on a platter," and fetching Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a Porsche 911 from Los Angeles who gave it all up for life in the slow lane.
Best of all is an ancient bucktoothed tow truck called, I kid you not, Tow Mater. As voiced by comic Larry the Cable Guy in a rare G-rated mode, this irrepressibly good-natured hillbilly sidekick is the friendliest guy in town and a character so out-and-out irresistible he drives away with the movie.
"Cars" is not only in love with cars, it's mad about the American West in general and the romance of Route 66, the legendary Mother Road, in particular.
The film is a visual valentine to such things as breathtaking desert scenery, classic neon signs and kitschy motels with rooms shaped like wigwams. It looks back longingly to the era when the idea was "not to make great time but to have a great time." And it makes us wonder what we gave up to get to where we are.
MPAA rating: G
A Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios presentation. Director John Lasseter. Co-director Joe Ranft. Screenplay Dan Fogelman, Lasseter, Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, Jorgen Klubien. Story by Lasseter, Ranft, Klubien. Producer Darla K. Anderson. Directors of photography Jeremy Lasky, Jean-Claude Kalache. Editor Ken Schretzmann. Music Randy Newman. Production designers William Cone, Bob Pauley. Supervising animators Scott Clark, Doug Sweetland. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
In general release.