Cars (2006) / Animation-Comedy

MPAA Rated: G, suitable for the whole family (it does contain mild innuendo)
Running Time: 112 min.

Cast (voices): Owen Wilson, Michael Keaton, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy,  Richard Petty, Paul Newman, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, George Carlin, Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Guido Caroni, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, Katherine Helmond, Joe Ranft. Jeremy Piven, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Edie McClurg, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Schumacher, Jay Leno, Mario Andretti
Director: John Lasseter
Screenplay: Dan Fogelman, Phil Lorin, Kiel Murray, Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson
Review published June 11, 2006

Your ability to enjoy Pixar/Disney's Cars will most likely come down to one solely of expectations.  Those that expect a home run every time out for Pixar will most likely be disappointed that it doesn't rank as highly in your hearts as other films to date, like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., or Toy Story.  I can understand this sentiment to a certain extent, but I don't think one should dismiss Cars as an inferior movie in the broader context, as it is still better than the vast majority of animated family features to come out in the last three years.  That may not seem like high praise given the mediocre track record of recent releases by Dreamworks, Fox, and non-Pixar Disney, but it is still praise nonetheless.  Now that a new 3D computer animated feature comes out seemingly every other month, it's just much harder for these sorts of movies to impress us as it had been in the earlier days, and the good-but-less-than-great shrug by critics toward Cars is to be expected. 

While Cars does have a uniqueness in the types of characters it portrays, namely, automobiles of all makes and models, it does have a very familiar plot at its core of a big city guy stuck in a small town that learns humility and modesty from the flavorful local folk and their simple way of life.  In this story, that guy is a race car named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson, Wedding Crashers), a flashy young rookie in the Nascar-like racing circuit known as the Piston Cup.  His first big race sees Lightning end in a three-way tie with the reigning champion, The King (voiced by NASCAR champ Richard Petty), and the egotistical second banana, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton on a NASCAR family film roll, coming after Herbie Fully Loaded), and to settle the matter of the winner, the three cars agree to race again in a new contest later.  While on the way to the big event, Lightning ends up getting into a bit of legal trouble after tearing up the small town of Radiator Springs, where he is forced to do community service before released to compete.  Out of the spotlight, he must deal with the slower paced world of small-town life, which he finds all too unappealing -- at least at first.

You know what to expect from the subgenre known as the computer animated feature: plentiful in-jokes, a motley assortment of colorful characters, celebrity voice work, a contemporary soundtrack, and plenty of eye-candy.   In this sense, Cars is a derivative form of entertainment, offering little that we haven't seen before in terms of thematic material or production standards.  Although the all-car cast is a new thing, is there really a difference at the core between this film and other movies with non-human characters, like Robots, Antz, or Shark Tale?  Most of the humor is a pun or offshoot of conventional human fare, but with automobile allusions, chockfull of phrases like "I'd give my left two lugnuts for that". 

Not that adhering to formula equates to a bad experience, as Cars is largely enjoyable, with fantastic computer generated animation, quality voice work, and plenty of funny, clever moments to keep young and old alike engaged for the duration.  It is a bit on the long side in terms of your average family film's running time, although not quite as long as The Incredibles, but a little trimming here and there, particularly in the slower paced middle section, might have resulted in a few less lulls. 

Throughout writing this entire review, I have been struggling with how many stars to give the film.  On the one hand, my instinct is to grade this film less than better Pixar entries like Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc.  On the other hand, Cars is better than other non-Pixar films I've given good reviews to, like Antz, The Polar Express and Over the Hedge.  My rule of thumb when it comes to split decisions is to give the lower of the two grades, so I'll have to stick with 3.5 stars.   I've done the same with other Pixar releases like A Bug's Life and The Incredibles; I think that's that's pretty good company to keep.

- Followed by Cars 2 (2011)

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo