The two are a match made in heaven.
When you produce such consistently great films, as Pixar does, it becomes necessary to rate them against themselves. There is no other scale; they have raised the bar too high. Rating "Cars" on the same scale as DreamWorks's "Over the Hedge" just isn't going to work. "Hedge" is good, but Pixar films are in a class by themselves. It becomes a matter of is it "Toy Story/ The Incredibles" good or simply "Monsters, Inc" good? "The Incredibles" and the "Toy Story" films represent modern examples of perfection in the art of animation. For that matter, there are few live action films that can compare. "A Bug's Life" and "Monsters, Inc" are both very good, but they aren't perfect. "Cars", the newest film from Pixar, with the voice talents of Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt and John Ratzenberger, is very good, but it's "Monsters, Inc." good. It isn't perfect.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a rookie car on the Piston Cup circuit, has the moves and attitude to win the Cup, upsetting the King (Richard Petty), the veteran in his last race, and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), the venerable also-ran determined to win. After a three-way tie, the cars head out to California to perform for the title. Lightning upsets his third pit crew of the year, all of whom quit, and he sets off to California with simply his truck, Mack (John Ratzenberger). Lightning pressures Mack to drive through the night and along the way, Lightning gets separated and lost. He ends up in Radiator Springs, a sleepy little town on Route 66, far off the interstate. Disoriented, Lightning causes some damage and Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a Porsche, who lives in the town wants to see the damage repaired, pressuring Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the town's judge, to order Lightning to fix the road before he leaves. Determined to get to California, Lightning tries to fulfill his duty but gets distracted by the residents of Radiator Springs.
Directed by John Lasseter ("Toy Story" and its sequel), "Cars" is a beautiful, richly detailed look at a world where cars live just like humans. Nearly great, the film has many things going for it and one key thing working against it.
Both a brilliant idea for an animated film and a brilliant marketing concept, "Cars" has a lot going for it. With NASCAR gaining popularity every week, this animated effort seems guaranteed to receive some cross-over. Also, how quickly can they retrofit the Speedway attractions at the theme parks? Let's freshen those babies up.
From the opening scenes, depicting a race at the Motor Speedway of the South, the computer generated animation is flawless in design and detail. Really, the only detail telling us this film is animated is the faces on the cars. Beyond that, the scenery and production design are flawless. We believe we are watching a real race at a real speedway (complete with cars filling the stands, doing the wave, and RVs parked in the center of the track) and the scenes of Lightning speeding through the landscape look like they were filmed, the landscapes appear so real I could almost smell the pine trees and the desert wind blowing across the open plain. The shots of Lightning and Sally driving through the forest are simply stunning. When they visit Ornament Valley, the rocks are beautiful and look like hood ornaments. When the race car arrives at Radiator Springs, the filmmakers have created a loving tribute to the little towns, motels, businesses, tourist attractions and icons which used to dot Route 66 during its heyday.
All of the cars are created with loving detail, each based on an actual car or vehicle. Even the car governor of California is a Hummer with an Austrian accent. Lightning is a race car, I'm going to guess a Mustang, I couldn't quite identify him, but Porsches, Ferraris, Buicks, Hudson Hornets and more, both old and new, make an appearance.
The voice talents are, as always, exceptional. Owen Wilson brings the right blend of cocky upstart and guts to Lightning McQueen. When he eventually realizes what his life is missing, and what he needs to do to fix it, we believe it. Paul Newman is perfect as Doc Hudson, the elder statesman of Radiator Springs. Once a powerful, cocky star in his own right, he prefers the quiet life in his little town. I read Newman, car buff that he is, suggested his character's make and model, giving Doc Hudson even more detail. He also has the right amount of gravelly intonation for a car fifty plus years old; you can imagine the carburetor adding to Doc's voice, in much the way Newman's voice adds resonance to the character. Hunt is good as the Porsche looking to protect and preserve the town and its inhabitants. Larry the Cable Guy is amusing as Tom Mater, the tow truck who is a few spark plugs short of a full engine. Tony Shalhoub plays Luigi, a little Italian car who runs the local tire shop and is obsessed with all things Ferrari. A number of real-life race car drivers make cameos as their cars and Tom and Ray, the Car Talk Guys from NPR, play the owners of Lightning's poorly funded sponsors.
I have to give a lot of credit to Pixar. They could've so easily made the race cars even more realistic and covered them with real sponsors, much like the real thing. Thankfully, we are spared from watching endless logos for Home Depot and the like. Instead, all of the sponsors are fictional, and provide a level of humor to the tale. Lightning's sponsors are Rust-Eze, the rear bumper rust lubricant. He longs to be sponsored by Dinoco, a large oil company. Get it? Dinoco, large oil company. Dinosaurs. Oil. Chick (Keaton) is sponsored by HTB, Hostile Takeover Bank. These are cute jokes, some of which are worked into the story, providing another level of detail to an already richly observed universe.
The problem with "Cars" is pacing. The film seems long and ten or fifteen minutes edited out middle would've improved the film greatly, giving it a faster rhythm, making it nearly unforgettable. As it is, the middle drags and we begin to fidget in our seats a bit.
"Cars" is fun, amusing and brilliantly designed. Sure to provide amusement for everyone in the family. As I have said many times, the mark of a classic animated film is it entertains the kids as well as the adults who have to take them. Would it entertain just adults? I heard a lot of laughter from adults, and a lot of laughter from the kids. At times a chorus, at others one group could be heard over the other. I can't imagine a better family film until maybe the next Pixar release, in summer, 2007, "Ratatouile", about a rat trying to eat good food in Paris.