(There's something else here, too -- a nostalgia for the great American road trip among the natural monuments along Route 66. But, evoked by a retro '50s design and the gas guzzlers of that era, this theme can't help but trigger a wince at the environmental damage to which this tradition has contributed.)
Preceded by "One Man Band," the Oscar-nominated dialogue-less short, "Cars" centers around Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie racecar poised to win the coveted Piston Cup. The filmmakers' passion for their subject is evident immediately in the movie's opening NASCAR-esque race, capturing the thunder of the track with never-before-seen camera angles from the asphalt, as well as demonstrating a keen understanding of the sport -- the politics, the unwritten etiquette, the cult of personality. But, en route to the championship race in California, Lightning takes an unexpected detour along Route 66 through Radiator Springs, where he meets Sally, a snazzy Porsche (Bonnie Hunt); Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman, whose automotive rendering looks remarkably like him); and Mater, a rusty but trusty tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), from whom he learns to drive not to make great time, but to have one.
Unlike in previous Pixar projects, there are no people here -- nor animals of any kind, for that matter. All of the characters are automobiles, including the sedan fans parked in the stadium, VW Beetles buzzing in light fixtures and tractors chewing cud in cornfields until a combine "bull" chases would-be tippers away -- among other delightful visual puns. Like the playthings in "Toy Story," the smooth, shiny surfaces of cars are particularly suited for CG, yet, as designed by Pixar artists, malleable enough so as to suggest personality.
(The filmmakers do make one exception for a flock of birds perched on telephone wire, in a wink to one of the studio's early shorts. After two decades, the animation powerhouse has earned the right to self-references, thus a clever end-credit sequence -- a never-disappointing tradition -- that revisits the Pixar library.)
After a half-dozen feature films -- not one flop among them -- Lasster and his team certainly know how to construct a story. Indeed, "Cars" is tightly structured -- so much so that one can fairly see the pieces slot snugly into place as the film unfolds. As a result, there's little surprise, and moviegoers might find themselves growing restless while they wait for the movie to catch up with what they already know is going to happen.
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Voices by Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, George Carlin and Richard Petty. Directed and written by John Lasseter. Produced by Darla K. Anderson. A Buena Vista release. Animated. Rated G. Running time: 116 min