Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a confident, charming young racing car, in his rookie year on the competitive circuit and desperate to make his name. Having lost his companion Mack The Truck (returning Pixar favourite John Ratzenberger), Lightning is speeding along the famous old Route 66 when he crashes, literally, into sleepy Radiator Springs, destroying the main street and causing consternation among the few inhabitant automobiles that remain in the almost-abandoned roadside town. Brought before the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the cocky racer is sentenced to community service, which must be completed before he can leave to get to the final race of the season. Lightning must win the coveted Piston Cup in order to secure a better contract with a more glamorous, better equipped sponsor, introducing an element of beat-the-clock to his court-appointed good works, his efforts to restore the town dwindling spirits, assemble a new pit crew and win the heart (carburettor?) of the smart, optimistic local beauty, Sally The Porsche, brightly voiced by Bonnie Hunt. The rest of the folks in town, a population that offers various diversions and entertaining dead-ends, include the slow-witted Mater The Tow Truck (voiced by a US hillbilly comedian called Larry the Cable Guy), Fillmore The VW Van (George Carlin) a free-wheeling throwback specialising in ‘natural’ fuels, and Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni as the Ferrari-loving tyre specialists Luigi and Guido.
Putting the undeniable skill and passion of the filmmakers aside, there is a limited appeal in the general scenario and only so many familiar car-related puns and jokes that Lasseter and his five other credited screenwriters can inject to liven things up. The decision to meld a couple of Hollywood standard storylines, and following them through without deviation, makes Cars a thin experience. Lasseter gives us another take on the notion that an impetuous youngster will learn lessons from a grizzled veteran and cannot avoid including whole sections establishing the soothing effect that the low-tempo rural way of life has on the spirit of a sophisticated urbanite. Once we go down these well-travelled roads, there is no turning back, making long stretches seem more like an animated updating of Doc Hollywood than a wholly original tale.
The films two big racing set-pieces top and tail the central story, leaving long sections of the film without much in the way of excitement, visual or otherwise. Ultimately, the story here is too twee and culturally specific to connect with audiences with the same impact as the undersea spaces of Nemo or the alternate universes of Toy Story. Cars laps at a much slower pace than Pixar usually set, extending the middle section of the film at the cost of making scant introductions and one-track characterisations that in turn reduce any surprises when it comes to the chequered flag. It’s also the least funny of the studio’s films, or perhaps my ignorance of the scenarios of NASCAR racing meant most of it went over my head. The score, from regular Pixar tunesmith Randy Newman, is virtually anonymous, not helped by the absence of the space in which to stage a jaunty sing-along. Squealing tyres and revving engines fill in instead, at volume.
The character design in Cars is somewhat less than we have come to expect from Pixar, with the fundamental design of the inspirational automobiles only made remotely anthropomorphic with the addition of windshield eyes and flipper-like tyres. The background art here is the real stand-out; pin-point accurate, bright and clear and astonishingly detailed. The single most stunning sequence comes during Lightning and Sally’s sparky romantic interlude, a meandering drive through the mountains and on into the Baja desert that offers luminous landscapes and backdrops, the striated mesas drawn after the old bonnet ornaments of the streamlined fifties, lit gold by a setting sun. Even by Pixar’s own high standards, this sequence is a breathtaking piece of work but without the connection with the characters that generates a growing emotional involvement in the adventure itself, Cars becomes just another digital cartoon, one in a very long line of similar releases already this year. The studios seventh feature is a solid entertainment for kids rather than the transcendent display of cutting-edge writing and animated artistry we have come to expect. Incidentally, don’t leave before the closing credits – the traditional ‘outtakes’ are better than most of what has gone before.