Route 66! It's still here!
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotrod rookie racecar whose myopic arrogance costs him a decisive victory in what should have been the biggest race of his life (insert Al Gore joke here). In his quest to be the best in the west, Lightning has alienated his pit crew, created an exhausting rivalry with nasty-boy racer Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and incurred the disappointment of the Richard Petty-esque veteran racer known as The King (played by, and I'm not joking, the real Richard Petty).
The real race gets going when McQueen's Semi-Driver Mack (John Ratzenberger) experiences a Sleep-Driving incident! Suddenly, our racy racer finds himself lost in a small desert town, making poor Bobby's breakdown from U-Turn look like an episode of Challenge of the Go-Bots by comparison.
Soon ol' L McQ has made almost as big a mess of little Radiator Springs as I made of Shreveport, Louisiana last time I was there (... almost). In order to get the jack out of town and back to the mother of all DO OVERS, he's got to clean up his wreckage and repave the main road as pretty as a Norman Rockwell Acid Trip. But, hey, you know how it is, you get your hot headed, big shot hot shot in a town full of Hillbillies, Hicks and Weirdoes, and you get as much friction as a Pennzoil-free Cold-Start. If the local Tire Sellers Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni) aren't shunning him for not being a Ferrari, Ramone (Cheech Marin) is trying to paint him Lowrider colors, while Ramone's wife Flo (Jennifer Lewis) is filling him up with just enough gas to keep him alive, but not enough to let him escape. Meanwhile, Hippie VW Bus Filmore (George Carlin) has his own ideas for "Organic Fuel", much to the chagrin of straight-laced Military Jeep Sarge (Paul Dooley). Then, of course, you've got the anti-dynamic duo of the old Model T Lizzie (Katherine Helmond) and Tow Mater (Dan "Larry the Cable Guy" Whitney), seemingly in a race for the title "Intergalactic I.Q. Nadir". The only thing vaguely interesting Lightning finds about this crumbling Route 66 town is the local Attorney and Motel Owner, a hot little Porche named Sally Carrera (played by Bonnie Hunt). Let's face it, the grumpy old guys in town like Sheriff (Michael Wallis) and old Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) are about as fun to hang out with as Statler and Waldorf on downers.
The above paragraph should tell you two things... the first, that Lightning McQueen will eventually discover how lonely he is and realize that he had to travel untold distances to find the true meaning of friendship and family... yeah, a "lesson" is written all over this movie like Graffiti on a San Francisco Beach Flood Wall. They might as well have had Randy Newman write a song called "I've been to Daytona, but I've never been to ME!" The second is that the trend of filling voice-only parts with face-recognized actors is alive, well and kicking like a World Cup Winner.
True, Cars' worst crime is that it's been done before (in story, if not visualization) and yes, it can be a tad predictable at times. Further, there is more than one Musical Interlude that both pads out the film and slows the plot down here and there. That said, it's a credit to the creators that Cars is still this incredibly good. The screenplay by no less than TEN credited writers never feels heavy-handed or gratuitous in its lessons, even as the cocky do-wrong discovers his heart in the desert. Yeah, ol' Mater is sure to become our hero's best buddy, and of course Sally will fall in love with Lightning and it's no surprise that Doc holds a big secret of his own. The ingredients are there. However, it's the way these mix and rise that makes Cars the treat that it is. At one point you might find yourself stomping your feet in uncontrolled laughter, at another, you may be wiping a happy tear from the old cheek-bone. This film simply works where it counts.
And then... there's the animation. It couldn't be better. Is it any surprise that Toy Story director John Lasseter has pulled himself out of mothballs to make this film? The kicker here is the way "light" works in this artificial world. To see a gleam of sunlight dancing across the finely finished candy-apple red of McQueen's chassis is a thing of beauty. This rich, metallic color-play stands in direct contrast to the animated, almost rubbery feel of the cartoonish world (so like ours, so fantastically separated) that our new friends occupy. The balance between photorealism and impossible fantasy is perfect, and it takes animators like Pixar's and a director like Lasseter to pull that off. See it, if you can, in a digital theatre and you'll see what I mean all the more.
In addition, it takes great and (no pun intended) animated voices to make this work. This cast is sensational... yes, even Larry. Sure it helps to know a little something about Auto Racing, Route 66 and cars in general to get all the in-jokes here (probably much more than your Brother Kneumsi knows), but the Cameos, for those in the know are excellent for laughs. The list includes Bob Costas (as Bob Cutlass), Darryl Waltrip (as Darryl Cartrip), Richard Kind and Edie McClurg (as a couple of Minivans named Van and Minny), Lynda Petty, Mario Andretti and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (as themselves... sort of), Jeremy Piven (as Harv the Agent) and last, but not least, Jay Leno (as Jay Limo). That's not even to mention two of my favorites Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers from NPR's Car Talk (playing McQueen Sponsors Rusty and Dusty Rusteze! And, folks, that's just SOME of the funny. Let nothing short of a rupturing bladder eject you from that seat during the credits, for some of the funniest and goofiest moments of the whole movie, and stay all the way through for a final, crack-up scene.
Cars has proven that Pixar has still got it (as if that needed proving) and that they're still the first ones over that finish line when the animated checkered flag waves. What's more, Cars is even better on a second viewing, when the audience knows that the slow and sentimental parts are indeed leading up to a satisfying and brilliant ending. Five Stars out of Five for Cars... yes, it's that good. Strangely, I've yet to see a Pixar Pic that wasn't. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go pay a few thousand fines to the Shreveport City Council... that new riverfront? Funded by me. Man. I'm hoping to wax up my car BURNEM and charm them all with some witty banter, but so far he just sits there... and looks tired. See you in the next reel... I might need a taxi though.
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