Though an intrinsic part of NASCAR’s appeal involves witnessing horrific high-speed pile-ups, there’s little enjoyment to be had in watching Pixar—after a decade-long run of producing superlative children’s films—suffer its maiden (albeit minor) wreck with the second-rate Cars. The first feature helmed by Pixar founder John Lasseter since 1999’s classic Toy Story 2, this anthropomorphic automobile adventure turns out to be, strangely enough, a spiritual remake of Michael J. Fox’s Doc Hollywood, charting the maturation of narcissistic stock car rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) after he’s delayed during his trip to a California championship race in the quaint, forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There, he meets a hodgepodge of vehicles whose exteriors match their interiors—including a hippie VW van (George Carlin) and a militant army jeep (Paul Dooley)—and undergoes an uncomplicated transformation from materialistic, self-involved jerk to noble role model with the help of a crotchety Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman), sexy Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), and hillbilly tow truck (an amusing Larry The Cable Guy).
Despite the fact that their expressiveness is constricted by their physical limitations (i.e. no useful appendages, only one bodily position), Lasseter and company’s four-wheeled protagonists resemble reasonably dynamic Matchbox toys sprung to life, their shiny chassis and vigorous velocity helping to partially distract attention away from their insanely creepy tongues (which floppily protrude from their mouths in a manner apt to give small tykes nightmares). But the film’s aesthetic magnificence ultimately comes less from its cute yet unengaging character models than from its panoramic settings and backgrounds, which exhibit a stunning level of near-photorealistic precision. In both its breakneck, speedway-set opening sequence and its sweeping shots of the rocky desert plains and lush wooded countryside, Cars’ visual flair and ingenuity far outpaces its CG movie rivals, providing a wealth of crystal-clear textures, brilliantly reflective lighting effects and naturalistic environmental details (especially with regards to foliage and water) that help establish a new benchmark for seamlessly synthesizing imagery both authentically lifelike and playfully cartoonish.
Nonetheless, whereas the film’s artistry is often awe-inspiring, its dawdling, unfunny 116-minute story stalls at nearly every turn, peddling morals about community, teamwork, and altruism in a ho-hum fashion while also proffering tired, red state-pandering rural-versus-urban hogwash. From Radiator Springs’s neon-lit architecture to Lightning’s eventual retro detailing, Lasseter indulges in gooey nostalgia for a mythic Leave it to Beaver version of the ’50s when life was simple and people were there for one another (no mention of whether black cars were allowed to make pit-stops in this idyll), the predictable flipside to such hooey being a characterization of the modern world as crass, cutthroat, and corrupting. Cars’ story is a hoary romanticization of all things rustic (and implicit critique of many things contemporary) that, in its schematism, comes off like a thinly veiled Hollywood olive branch extended toward conservative heartland inhabitants. Musty, corny, and largely devoid of any enchanting magic, it’s also the pioneering Pixar’s first effort that, trailblazing technical virtuosity be damned, feels disappointingly regressive.