By now you've heard that "Cars" is Pixar's first less-than-great movie. I'm here to tell that, while this is indeed true, it may be time to take a deep breath and consider things. Here are the facts of "Cars" as I can see them: Pixar, a film studio that has previously delivered straight 9's and 10's (plus the instant-eleven that was "The Incredibles") has now released a mere 7. The obvious downside is, yes, those of us anticipating yet another grand Pixar entry to brighten a somewhat-dreary summer will have to settle for something that's just "okay." But, let's remember, a 7 is still pretty good... especially this summer, in the wake of "X-Men 3," "The Omen," and more.
The problems with the film are myriad, but it suffers chiefly in the story department. More directly, it suffers because there's just not that much too it. It seems kind of strange, but also undeniable: The same minds that found Kurosawa in an anthill, emasculation-anxiety in Toys, fatherhood in Fish and Monsters... that produced the most moving hymn to the power of The Individual since "Atlas Shrugged" in the guise of a Superhero spoof... somehow, they seem unable to find any depth in the notion of anthropomorphic automobiles other than obvious car puns, embarassing pandering to the High Church of Nascar and a "city boy gets morality-check from small towners" plot outline that was stale over ten years ago when it was "Doc Hollywood."
The film is at it's best in the visual realm, wherein Lassetter and his crew deftly imagine an entire world populated not by humans but by living cars (right down to buzzing insects "played" by itty-bitty Volkswagons. Cute.) The cars themselves are marvels of design, ambling about on bouncy rubber tires with big front-bumper grins (and mustache-grills where applicable) and eyes taking up their windshields. Within this all-car universe, a massive Nascar-reminiscient race called The Piston Cup appears the equivalent of World Cup Soccer... save that this event would probably be watched in the U.S. (Dear god... FIFA meets Nascar... it's like if the worst parts of Europe and America got smooshed together into one thing. The horror... the horror...) Our guide to this world is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, named for a Pixar animator and not Steve McQueen) a brash young rookie sensation aiming to win the Piston Cup by unseating veteran The King (Richard Petty, part of a deluge of race-world celebrities making cameos.)
The biggest problem comes right away: Simply put, while the character animation is a wonder and Wilson's "who, me?" cockiness is a fine fit, Lightning is a pretty annoying hero. He's a braggart, a jerk and over-ambitious... in other words, the kind of Family Film lead who's whole existance is to broadcast "teach me my valuable lesson" until a cast of supporting goodies answer. All well and good, save that there's nothing TO Lightning other than being a jerk: He's got no backstory, no depth of character, no real reason to root for him to improve. Where'd he come from? Why is he friendless? What's with the 'tude? We never find out. In any case, a series of contrivances traps a Piston Cup-bound Lightning in Radiator Springs; onetime jewel of Route 66 blighted when the Interstate bypassed it. When he accidentally destroys a stretch of road, boss-man Doc (Paul Newman) orders him to repave it before he can leave.
In other words, bratty Lightning will now be forced to stick around and learn a certain number of lessons from each of the town's colorful residents prior to the Big Race. Here comes mis-step number two... the supporting cast just isn't very interesting. It's an assortment of overly-obvious gags: The Jeep is a drill sergeant, the low-rider (Cheech Marin) is Latino, the VW Microbus (George Carlin) is a hippie stoner, etc. Bonnie Hunt fares best in a straight turn as Sally the Porsche, big-city lawyer turned self-appointed savior of the town, while Newman has fun as a crusty Hudson Hornet with a big secret that, unfortunately, you'll guess right away. The surprising standout is comedian Larry the Cable Guy as the Gump-like tow truck Mater (Tow Mater, ha ha.) That I find Larry the Cable Guy's act funny has always surprised me, but he's hysterical here... as though he was born to play a talking tow truck.
The film really wants to have something meaningful to say about the lamented loss of roadside culture in the era of the Interstate, and I share the Pixar people's obvious love of cross-country kitsch. But here, despite a sepia-toned flashback to "the good old days" of the family road trip that's trying AWFULLY hard to match the similar lump-in-the-throat nostalgia moment from "Toy Story 2," the feeling here is just this side of... well, hollow. It's one thing to ignore the inherent contradiction in a product of the Walt Disney Company sermonizing about the loss local identity to nationwide commerce, since after all films can't really help who's name is on the poster. But it's another matter entirely to try and buy these lessons coming from a film that so happily drapes itself in the colors of that absolute pinnacle of crass commercialism that is Nascar.
There's just not enough too this, sadly. It's cute, it's inoffensive, but in the end it's just to much movie and not enough meat. Fun to watch, but it's no keeper.
FINAL RATING: 7/10