Hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has only one goal: to become the first rookie to ever win the Piston Cup. If that means alienating everyone around him, then so be it. But, while en route to the last race in California, McQueen receives an unexpected lesson in the benefits of slowing down. A series of mishaps sees him imprisoned in the tiny town of Radiator Springs on the famous Route 66. While there he gets to know the town's quirky residents, including patriarch Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally the feisty motel owner (Bonnie Hunt). Though McQueen is, at first, horrified to be stuck in a hick town with the big race only days away, he slowly comes to appreciate how much more there is to life than winning.
In their 20-year history, Pixar Studios has come to represent the gold standard in feature length animated films, and, to look at it, Cars is no exception. They have taken what used to be a clumsy and lifeless tool - computer animation - and turned it into a living, breathing art form. Many bewail the passing of traditional cell animated extravaganzas like Disney's Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but to see the glorious, glittering visual feast that is Cars is to fall in love with the new technology.
Of course most audiences were already convinced of this by the time they saw Pixar's biggest hit - 2003's Finding Nemo - an Oscar winning masterpiece that was as beautiful to look at as it was entertaining. In fact Nemo set the bar so high that even Pixar themselves have not yet been able to better it. Visually Cars is every bit as good as Nemo, but it falls down when it comes to story.
There's nothing essentially wrong with the youth-meets-experience fable at the heart of Cars, except that we have seen it a hundred times before. However technically adept they may be, Pixar's films have always been built on strong original stories with even stronger characters. In comparison to iconic characters like Buzz Lightyear, Marlin and Mr Incredible, the animated automobiles in Cars are endearing and amusing, but ultimately forgettable.
But what Cars lacks in emotional depth, it makes up for in sheer attention to detail. From the sponsor stickers on Lightning's bumper to the perfectly rendered clouds, every inch of the film has been painstakingly crafted. The overall effect is of a fully articulated world, with none of the limitations of an animated film. You may not see Paris or New York or the rainforests, but you get the feeling they are out there, just waiting to be "filmed".
Cars also has some of the most impressive animated action sequences ever made. The idea of cartoon cars racing around a track may sound comical, but Pixar have managed to make it every bit as exciting as the real thing. In true Pixar style, they have gone a step further, capturing breathtaking "shots" of the racing that would be impossible to achieve in real life. The effect is capped by the extraordinary sound design, complete with roaring engines, whining transmission and squealing tires.
Amidst all these visual and aural wonders, the vocal cast seems almost an afterthought. The main characters acquit themselves well enough, but the dialogue just doesn't have the pizzazz of Pixar's earlier hits. Charismatic talents like John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton and Cheech Marin all seem to fade into the background, with only Tony Shalhoub (from TV's "Monk") making any kind of impression. Cameos by racing greats like Mario Andretti and Michael Schumacher are fun, but don't add much to the proceedings.
In the end though, the film's few flaws are far outweighed by its joys. Its story may be weaker than we have come to expect from Pixar, but it is still a cut above almost everything else on circuit, animated or otherwise. The breathtaking set pieces alone make the movie a not-to-be-missed spectacle. So take the kids, or just go by yourself, but don't let Cars pass you by.
- Alistair Fairweather
The talented folks who made “Finding Nemo” have just released their latest masterpiece. We took a ride.
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