"Cars" rolls along like an animated, automotive version of that 1991 Michael J. Fox gem, from its basic plot points to its feel-good conclusion.
Stop us if you think you've heard this one before: A young hotshot on his way to Los Angeles causes a crash and gets stuck in a small town. Before he can leave, he must spend several days doing community service, only to find out that he likes the simple life there and that he's learned more about family and friendship than he'd ever imagined.
The main difference in "Cars" is that the characters are ... well, they're cars, hence the title. Owen Wilson takes the Fox role as a stud rookie race car who gets trapped in the forgotten town of Radiator Springs along Route 66 — though it's hard to imagine the inspiration in casting an actor as famously laid-back as Wilson to voice a character named Lightning McQueen. Vince Vaughn maybe, or Ben Stiller. Even Ben Stein would have sounded speedier.
What also sets "Cars" apart is that it's a Pixar production, under the direction of John Lasseter, who brought you the "Toy Story" movies and "A Bug's Life." As an executive producer, Lasseter also helped shepherd "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," some of the most entertaining and emotionally rich films to come along in an era when animated pictures too often feel like an arrogant amalgamation of pop-culture references.
It's certainly a beautiful film, just like its Pixar predecessors. The animators keep getting better at creating backgrounds and details that look so realistic, you often forget you're watching a computer-generated cartoon and feel as if you're looking at filmed footage. The reflection of neon light on a car's hood, the splash of water or rustle of leaves on the road, the hazy glow from lamps hanging over the highway — all tangibly, stunningly rendered.
The makers of "Cars" clearly didn't skimp on the vocal talent, either. Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, George Carlin and John Ratzenberger join Wilson in the all-star cast, alongside racing legends Mario Andretti, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty. And Jeremy Piven shows up as — you guessed it — the voice of Lightning's fast-talking agent. (Someday, when "Entourage" is over, Piven will get a chance to remind the world that he knows how to play other roles.)
All of which makes it even more baffling that it took six screenwriters to think of things for these eclectic, enormously talented people to say.
Kids will find the film fast and colorful (if they can sit still for its two-hour running time — many couldn't at a recent New York screening and were running around the theater by the end). But adults may find it quite facile, especially during a draggy stretch in which James Taylor sings a song — one that's surprisingly clunky, considering Randy Newman wrote it — which explains how tiny towns along Route 66 dried up once the interstate came plowing through the Southwest. It's as if Lasseter yanked the emergency brake.
Hunt plays a Porsche named Sally who used to be a high-powered lawyer but left L.A., she says, because, "I never felt ... happy." Newman plays a crotchety old judge with a secret to hide. But more offensive than that are the stereotypes the supporting cast supplies: Carlin as a hippie Volkswagen bus who makes organic fuel; Cheech Marin as a low-rider named Ramone who offers elaborate paint jobs. Larry the Cable Guy provides the voice of (what else?) a dimwitted redneck tow truck — but his character is responsible for one of the funniest scenes in the film, when he takes Lightning out tractor-tipping, similar to cow-tipping, in the moonlight.
What has in the past made these Pixar movies stronger and more enduring than, say, "Shark Tale" or "Hoodwinked" or "Madagascar" is that they are of our world without obnoxiously parodying the details of our daily lives. A big race at the beginning of "Cars" is more thrilling than NASCAR — with even more inventive camera angles — but it doesn't trot out gratuitous references to "American Idol" or the Black Eyed Peas, for example.
Instead, it just rips off "Doc Hollywood," almost note for note.
"Cars," a Disney Pixar release, is rated G. Running time: 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
By Christy Lemire