This year's model 

A review of *Cars (G)

click to enlarge Lightning McQueen (left) and Sally Carerra.
  • Lightning McQueen (left) and Sally Carerra.

*Cars (G)

Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
John Lasseter, the guiding light behind the computer-animation revolutionaries at Pixar, has apparently grown weary of all the focus on his movies' gee-whiz-ardry. Ever since Toy Story launched a revolution in animated movie-making, the conventional wisdom has been that viewers were no longer interested in old-school cel animation not as long as there was faster, shinier, newer technology to deliver the kid stuff.

So for his first directing gig since Toy Story 2 in 1999, Lasseter decided to launch a sly attack on an American culture that only seems to value the faster, shinier, newer thing.

Like every one of the six previous features Pixar has delivered, Cars is smart, snappy and entertaining. And like every one of those six previous features, it's grounded in fundamentally strong storytelling. It's funny, warm and charming, yes but it's also wise in a way that's almost enough to make you want to weep.

Our flawed hero is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hot-shot rookie convinced he's destined for greatness. Despite a bout of egomania, he manages a tie for the Piston Cup points lead in the season's final race, leading to a three-way race-off involving legendary champion "The King" (legendary champion Richard Petty) and rival Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton).

But on the cross-country trip to the venue in California, Lightning is inadvertently left behind in the dying Southwest town of Radiator Springs. And when a little road rage earns him a sentence of community service from the stern local judge/mechanic Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), he's stuck out of the limelight.

Lasseter and his team of writers obligingly provide a collection of great comic-relief characters: Larry the Cable Guy as enthusiastic tow truck Mater, who becomes Dory to Lightning's Marlin; George Carlin as hippy-dippy VW bus Fillmore; Tony Shalhoub as little import Luigi, who treats his tire store like a restaurant.

The completely car-inhabited world is filled with the same kind of wonderful details that made Monstropolis or Finding Nemo's reef so charming, like tiny flying "bugs" that are VW Beetles, or a courtroom bar that's actually a guardrail. Throw in a couple of Lasseter's brilliantly choreographed action set pieces, and it's exactly the kind of freewheeling fun that we're all supposed to crave.

Except that it's also more. At its expansive heart, Cars is an affectionate, almost mournful story of how easy it is to leave anything that isn't hot and happenin' anything that isn't this year's model in the dust. Lightning longs to abandon his demographically undesirable sponsor Rust-Eze for flashier deals. Doc Hudson, we learn, was once a great racing champion himself, abandoned to the scrap heap after a wreck and embittered by the experience.

And in a terrific, heartbreaking sequence reminiscent of Toy Story 2's "When She Loved Me," town attorney Sally tells Lightning about how Radiator Springs collapsed as a result of the new interstate bypassing historic Route 66. Lightning's character arc isn't just to become nicer; it's to realize that faster isn't always better, that it's important to look in the rearview mirrors he so conspicuously lacks and develop a sense of history.

There's a certain poetry to Cars marking Lasseter's post-Pixar-merger ascendance to the throne at Disney animation. His movies soar not because he was always looking forward, but because he has always had the good sense to check his rearview mirrors.

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