‘Cars’ is a fun ride, though out of tune

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‘Cars’ is a fun ride, though out of tune


John Lasseter, the director of “Cars,” is one of those skilled, creative, fun-loving filmmakers who built a career on a single idea.
For Lasseter, that idea was to combine inspirational family tales with beautiful computer-generated animation. ?Having made “Toy Story,” Lasseter bears much of the responsibility for convincing mainstream moviegoers that it was possible to enjoy a human story with convincing characters made of digital bits.
But with “A Bug's Life,” “Toy Story 2” and all the other Pixar flicks, in which Lasseter yielded the director's chair, the novelty of computer animation has disappeared, and the charm of Pixar’s stories is starting to wear a little bit thin.
This time, an anthropomorphic hotshot racecar named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) wins a chance at the championship Piston Cup, only to fall out of his trailer in the middle of the desert and end up in a decaying old motor town on an obsolete stretch of Route 66. ?There, he learns how to leave the fast lane and smell the asphalt, how to make friends, and perhaps even (sigh) how to love.
The world of “Cars” is the furthest from our own of any Pixar effort. This is a mechanical world, where automobiles replace people, tractors replace cows and little flying Volkswagons stand in for “bugs.” ?(Get it?)Yes, the toys in “Toy Story” could talk, as could the fish in “Finding Nemo,” ditto the bugs in “A Bug's Life,” but these were all worlds underneath our own, that were meant to pass unnoticed under our noses. ?In “Cars,” humanity is nowhere to be found, a shame considering that Pixar recently perfected CG people in its “Incredibles.”
Despite the best efforts of the actors, in particular ex-racer Paul Newman as the race car’s aging mentor, these character designs don’t manage to stir the emotional reactions Lasseter might have hoped for.
There are hints of cartooniness here and there, but the spirit of caricature that lived in Pixar’s previous efforts is muted. ?It seems mass produced automobiles are harder to make into interesting characters than toys, bugs or fish, which come in all shapes and sizes.
The most obvious example is the love story between Lightning and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), the Porsche who shows the stranger the charms of the slow life. ?A romance between two nearly photorealistic motor vehicles comes off as absurd rather than cute.
Still, this is not the Big Flop that so many cynics have waited for Pixar to produce. ?No matter how predictable his films may be, Lasseter can still produce amusing and even touching interactions between his characters, with the help of some excellent voice talent, a unique, toe-tapping country soundtrack and a team of true artists working on the gloriously rendered desert backdrops.
Some of the little touches will also appeal to gearheads. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti make cameo appearances. ?Unfortunately, for those outside the racing world, these references won’t mean much.
But all its problems aside, the most vital element is still here: The Pixar crew clearly had a lot of fun assembling “Cars” ― and that joy is still infectious.

116 min.
Opens July 20

by Ben Applegate
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