A new Pixar short precedes Cars in theaters. This has become a tradition with Pixar films (mimicked recently by DreamWorks), with delightful brief animations introducing the main feature. Like the others, the new short, "One Man Band," perfectly encapsulates in just 4-1/2 minutes this preeminent animation studio's ability to dazzle us with artistry and enchant us with simple, poignant stories.
Cars (rated G) itself, the new Pixar feature that follows in the footsteps of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, is not quite so polished a product. For a variety of reasons, Cars is not top-notch Pixar, but it's still very, very good Pixar. And good Pixar is still great family entertainment.
Cars relies on a very simple story, though the protagonists are certainly not so typical. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a hotshot rookie race car chasing after a win at the Piston Cup, the top race of the year. A three-way tie between Lightning, dirty driver Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), and legendary veteran The King (Richard Petty) in the Cup sets the stage for a tie-breaker race in California.
Lightning is an arrogant solo flier who regularly alienates and loses his pit crews. During his trip cross country for the big race, Lightning is waylaid in tiny Radiator Springs, a ramshackle town along Route 66. Sentenced to community service by local judge and physician Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) for carelessly destroying the town's main street, Lightning chafes at the town's slow pace and simpleton residents. He's anxious to reach California, where the Piston Cup Championship, and potentially a major sponsorship, awaits.
But soon Doc Hudson and the other townsfolk-among them, a tow truck, a Porsche, and a 1959 Fiat (Tony Shalhoub)-begin to have an effect on Lightning, and to his surprise he begins to care about this little town and its people. The virtues of small town life-caring about one's neighbors and slowing down-and the idea that there may be something greater than winning gradually sink into Lightning's consciousness.
Cars shares many traits with other Pixar films: breathtakingly beautiful animation (a real standout here); a gentle, well-paced storyline; and better-than-average songs (including James Taylor's ballad to small town life, "Our Town"). The story is simple, but director John Lasseter still manages to build in intricately crafted visual and thematic layers.
What Cars lacks, perhaps to its detriment, is people. Everything in Cars is machine-cleverly, even the flies are Volkswagen Beetles and the cows are big, gassy tractors. Car nuts will love the film. That Mr. Lasseter and his team can hold the interest of the rest of us with a story so devoid of flesh and blood is impressive, but some of the emotional heart that existed in previous Pixar efforts is lost here.
One final note: There is also slightly more (though very subtle) innuendo than is typical for Pixar in Cars, and two uses of the word hell. Pixar is typically held up as the standard for cartoons that avoid trafficking in lowest-common-denominator bathroom humor and adult-targeted sexual innuendo. The exceptions in Cars are minor, and I hope they don't signify a trend.