Lightning McQueen is the come-from-nowhere rookie sensation who appears set to take the Piston Cup Championship and a lucrative sponsorship deal. A narcissistic snob down to his frame he claims to be a one car show and refuses to acknowledge the work of his pit crew – after all, there can be no “I” in “team” when there is no team . When an unplanned detour leaves him stranded in the desert town of Radiator Springs McQueen is forced to reexamine his life philosophy and a crash course in what’s really important.
How do I get out of this no horse town?
Ever since Pixar’s wizards made people feel sorry for a little table lamp 20 years ago, they have been the innovators in computer animation. Their first foray into feature films with 1995’s 'Toy Story' was a hit with both children and adults. It set the bar for the genre, and also earned Pixar a fortune in box office receipts and merchandising. With Disney as a partner, they would spend the next decade animating toys, bugs, monsters, fish and superheroes. In spite of guaranteed audiences, the creators never lost sight of the their audience delivering in-depth storylines and more spectacular animations with each outing. For producer/director John Lasseter, one of the creative leads at Pixar, something was missing however.
As early as 1998, Lasseter, a lifelong cartoon fan and avowed auto junkie had been mulling over an idea for a new film. It wasn’t until he went on a family vacation that his creative juices bot a much needed jumpstart and he figured out how to showcase two of his passions. He decided that the best way to impart his vision to Pixar’s creative team was to rent Cadillacs and meander along Route 66 to get a feel for the people and towns he wanted to bring to life onscreen. Their nine-day roadtrip was clearly inspirational.
From the opening sequence it’s clear that Pixar’s creative team did their homework: anyone who has so much as glimpsed NASCAR while channel surfing will appreciate the realistic thunderous roar of the track. That realism extends to the cars – you would be hard pressed to differentiate between the anthropomorphic stars of the film and their real life namesakes, well, except for their mouths and eyes: everything down to the lug nuts and the way light bounces off the vehicles looks real. That attention to detail extends to the scenic background shots, most notably in the amazingly rendered sequences that feature a journey through forests and desert: it looks like they’ve cut and pasted actual sections from a National Geographic travelogue. Of course that explains why we have to wait several years in between films – the animators spent the better part of a year trying to duplicate the interplay between light and metallic surfaces. I can’t even fathom that kind of patience. Ultimately however, you need more than a pretty picture to sell tickets.
No matter how great a film looks, viewers also demand engaging stories and characters they can connect with. If you have any doubts, (talk to the team that nearly bankrupted several studios with their 2001 photorealistic film 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.' The Pixar team recognized these essentials from the outset, as evidenced audiences that keep coming back for more and 'Cars' is no exception. Owen Wilson nails Lightning’s carefree swagger, but it is during his character’s emotional evolution that Wilson delivers one of his most powerful performances to date. Paul Newman is wonderful as the stoic Doc Buick, the jack of all trades dispenser of wisdom who harbours a secret while Pixar veteran Bonnie Hunt is coy as Sally, Lightning’s sporty potential love interest.
Other residents include George Carlin as Fillmore, a dopey VW hippie mobile, Cheech Marin as Ramone a showy low-rider, Paul Dooley as Sarge, the patriotic GI jeep and Tony Shaloub as Luigi the finicky Fiat and manic proprietor of the local tire shop. And of course lucky charm John Ratzenberger – the only person to voice a character in every Pixar feature – is back, playing Mac Lightning’s ditzy big rig. There is also a legion of guest voices, including members of racing royalty. But no character best embodies the spirit of the film than Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater, the down to earth (and earthy), somewhat dimwitted tow truck, who befriends Lightning. Mater elicits both laughter and heartfelt emotion, neither of which one normally associates with a vehicle, yet it feels perfectly natural in context. While Lightning’s interactions with the denizens of Radiator Springs are essential, as any commuter can attest, detours can also prove troublesome.
Clocking in at 116 minutes, 'Cars' is Pixar’s longest feature yet and it feels long, most notably during Lightning’s lengthy recuperative phase which is when the story’s momentum stalls. I became acutely aware of this upon my second viewing of the film as I observed throngs of testy toddlers talking, kicking seats or fussing in general. In addition to its length the bulk of the jokes (I overheard a little boy ask “What’s so funny daddy?” during a scene with some groupies) and the themes are geared specifically towards adults. They could have trimmed at least 20 minutes from the middle of the film without any adverse effects.
While it suffers from an extended runtime and a sagging middle section, Pixar fans are sure to enjoy Cars: while it is no “The Incredibles” or “Toy Story”, as always it showcases ground breaking animation, boasts an enjoyable story, and a cast of lovable characters that will draw you in. While watching the movie, remember to pay attention to the cleverly crafted details and look for the subtle homage to previous Pixar pics. Finally, do not leave before the credits finish rolling or you’ll miss some of hilarious gags.