My expectations run high for a Pixar film. I hoped I would like Cars as much as I love Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. I wasn't sure how involving a movie starring automobiles would work, but I was sure Pixar would make it work for me. Cars may be a good children's movie (especially compared to the other choices for kids), but it's only an average Pixar film; I would put it on the same level as Toy Story 2. It's never a good sign when the funniest, most entertaining part of a movie are the closing credits.
The storyline is predictable: Rookie race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is scheduled to compete in a three-way race with racing legend The King (retired NASCAR legend Richard Petty), and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), an obnoxious attention hog. Lightning (I cannot bring myself to call him "McQueen" -- it reminds me of someone I would rather have watched) is too self-centered; he can't keep a pit crew or a crew chief, and doesn't have any true friends. Racing has consumed his whole life. So when Lightning gets lost on the road in the middle of the night in a small town called Radiator Springs and becomes entangled in the town's problems ... we all know what's going to happen.
Still, Pixar movies often have stories that are easy for kids to follow. The basic plot of Finding Nemo is obvious if you think about it. However, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles have enough action and contain such a variety of entertaining characters that you don't stop and think about what's ultimately going to happen. Cars is a longer movie (116 minutes), with too many lulls in the action and not enough innovation.
The children in the audience grew restless during two musical interludes that showcased songs with montages of lovely visual images. The first one, in which Lightning travels across country in a Mack truck (which itself is a character voiced by John Ratzenberger), seemed terribly pointless. The second one, which features an interminable James Taylor tune, was intended to show two characters getting to know one another better, but it came across as an excuse to show off some stunning landscape animation, which six-year-olds will hardly notice or care about. I admit I'm not fond of James Taylor, so I may be biased.
Near the middle of the movie, Cars meanders into a subplot about small towns on Route 66 that fell into ruin when interstate highways were built. In fact, a lot of this movie is a love letter to towns like Radiator Springs back in their heyday, and the Radiator Springs scenes have a pleasingly retro look. (I loved the motel made of giant traffic cones.) However, the kids at the screening I attended were not at all interested in this little history lesson, and even the adults looked a little bored.
The dialogue in Cars often ranges from blah to eye-rollingly predictable. When Lightning entangles himself into a mess in the small town, a police car appears, and I muttered to myself, "Son, you're in a heap of trouble." Two seconds later, the police car said the exact same thing. Later in the film, one character departs with the cliched line, "I hope you find what you're looking for."
Cars isn't sufficiently silly and fun. Finding Nemo has seagulls that cry "Mine!" a lot and a school of fish that do imitations and sharks that chant "Fish are friends, not food."; even the original Toy Story has those great "Claw is our master" aliens. Cars has a couple of goofy Italian cars and a comic variation on cow-tipping and what I suspect are a lot of NASCAR in-jokes that I missed. (I did notice the "Car Talk" guys, who voiced the Rust-Eze brothers, and who were delightful.) And the all-car universe is funny at times -- I loved the little Beetles. But the silly moments are outnumbered by a truckload of sappiness and heavy-handed messages about caring for others and nostalgia for the good old days of neon lights in Route 66 small towns.
The automotive characters themselves are too obvious: a tow truck is a hick, a VW van is a hippie, an Army jeep is a patriotic military man ... the fire truck is the only character played against type. Paul Newman steals the movie in a kid-friendly reprise of his Judge Roy Bean role, with a hint of Sid Mussburger from The Hudsucker Proxy. Owen Wilson imbues Lightning McQueen with his now-standard character, which I'm starting to find a mite tiresome. I didn't recognize Larry the Cable Guy because I confess I've never heard him before; he's amusing as the tow truck Tow Mater (get it? get it?). I liked hearing supporting voices Paul Dooley, George Carlin, and Katherine Helmond and wish they'd been given less one-dimensional roles. John Ratzenberger has his best moment in those sidesplitting closing credits.
Cars is worth watching on the strength of the closing credits alone, especially if you're a Pixar fan. Animation buffs who liked seeing how Pixar managed the hair and clothing effects in The Incredibles might enjoy the gorgeous background scenery, or might be intrigued by the ways in which the cars are transformed into individual characters (mostly with a range of eye expressions). You may need to keep kids entertained during the lame musical interludes, but they'll probably enjoy Lightning and Mater's antics. NASCAR fans may appreciate the voice cameos from various race-car personalities, such as Mario Andretti and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Cars isn't a bad movie at all, and it's undoubtedly a better summer-movie option than many other "family-friendly" films. However, if you're fond of other Pixar films, you may find yourself a little disappointed in this easily forgettable film.