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(2006) *** G
116 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: John Lasseter. Cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Petty, Cheech Marin, Michael Keaton, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Dooley, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Helmond, George Carlin, Jeremy Piven, Richard Kind, Edie McClurg.

While watching Pixar Animation Studio's Cars, I reflected—for the first time while watching a Pixar movie—on the Pixar formula. Research and development; a team of writers to craft a dense script full of sight gags, wordplay, and heart; star vocal talent; and the more detail, the better. Attention to quality control has always made Pixar Formula One, and Cars is a more efficient animated family film than any we've seen since, well, Pixar's last one (The Incredibles).

Then again, why was my mind drifting? The headwind demands of narrative and novelty—after an unprecedented string of critical and commercial hits—noticeably put a drag on Cars, a perfectly pleasant but indulgent kids' film that probably could have benefitted by losing a half-hour. Owen Wilson supplies the voice of Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie stock-car champ-in-the-making ("Float like a Cadillac; sting like a Bimmer!"). When his film-opening face-off with The King (real-life racing champ Richard Petty) and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) turns out to be a preliminary, the upstart Lightning must make his way to Los Angeles for the big "Piston Cup" race.

Along the way, he ends up waylaid in the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs, gateway to Ormanent Valley (think Monument Valley) and once the pride of Carburator County. Trapped in an uneasy standoff with the local denizens—including hicky Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), fetching Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), and old-timer Doc Hornet (acting and NASCAR legend Paul Newman)—Lightning learns how not to be a "one-man show" by accepting friends, teammates, and the wisdom of his elder.

Obviously, the anthropomorphization of cars is no Sunday drive. Lasseter wisely keeps the rules of his car world loose—if giving cars tongues wasn't such a great idea, it's at least in line with some of the picture's other absurd touches (you may have to think a minute about the running gag that involves desert insects). Lasseter commands spectacular attention to detail, from the reflections caught in shiny hoods to the quickly convincing "facial" expressions to the gorgeous desert and wooded settings: Cars artfully idles on the border of photo-realism and stylization.

The sheer volume of talent involved is staggering. With Pixar, six screenwriters is a good thing, as well as a legion of animators, advisors, musicians (James Taylor sings a Randy Newman song, for example), actors (count in Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Paul Dooley, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, Jeremy Piven, Richard Kind, Edie McClurg, and old-hand John Ratzenberger), and lovingly selected guest stars (Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, NPR's Tom and Ray Magliozzi, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mario Andretti). In fact, stick around to the end of the credits to get an idea of what went into Cars—you can get a contact high from the enthusiasm and love that emanate from a Pixar pic.

Like Lasseter's Toy Story films, Cars deeply values old fashion while bemoaning sped-up culture and only grudgingly heroizing modern flash (Woody vs. Buzz Lightyear becomes Lightning vs. Doc). Aside from a passing reference to the superiority of organic fuel, however, Cars doesn't broach the environmental backwardness of its nostalgia. Sure, these old cars look cool and once got us where we were going, but you know John Lasseter drives a hybrid to work (perhaps the inevitable Cars II—subtitle: "An Inconvenient Truth"?—will broach the subject). Even if Cars isn't the studio's champion outing, Pixar continues to run on all cylinders.

[Note: Cars plays with Pixar's delightful Oscar-nominated short "One Man Band," a four-minute certified hoot with music by Michael Giacchino. Don't be caught out at the popcorn stand.]

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