Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cars: New Pixar/Disney Feature Moves at the Speed of Funny

A city-slicker hotshot, in a big hurry to get to Southern California, causes a bit of road ruckus while traveling through a small town, a backwards place whose ways elicit his sneers. He’s forced to do penance by applying his considerable skills to public service, and he’s widely admired for his work. Along the way, he bonds with the locals, meets the girl of his dreams, and gains a little schooling in real old-fashioned hometown values.

Haven’t we heard this before? Well, yes, the plot of “Cars” most closely resembles that of the 1991 Michael J. Fox vehicle “Doc Hollywood” – just switch out the arrogant young medical student waylaid in South Carolina with a cocky young race car inadvertently stuck in Radiator Springs, a forgotten burg on Route 66, somewhere in the great Southwest.

It’s an old theme, one played out in the likes of “Local Hero” and “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain” and plenty of other movies and books.

But John Lasseter, responsible for directing three Pixar animated gems – the “Toy Story” movies, “A Bug’s Life” – and executive-producing three more hits for the studio, has taken that old jalopy back out and given it a high-tech shine.

The result is “Cars,” a funny, fast-moving, entirely enjoyable Disney/Pixar feature that’s nearly as entertaining as Lasseter’s earlier productions. Don’t bet against “Cars” overtaking “Ice Age: The Meltdown” – and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” “Barnyard,” “Monster House” and everything else – as the children’s movie to beat this summer.

Lasseter, a lifelong car fanatic raised on Hot Wheels and California roads, has created characters with windshield eyes, hoods for noses and grills for mouths, with tongues often hanging out the front. They talk like people, but move like cars, and they’re immediately appealing.

This story’s over-confident young overachiever is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a fellow who embodies the showy sheen and legitimate tough-guy moves of someone whose name might be drawn from both “greased lightning” and Steve McQueen.

He’s candy-apple red and all revved up to win the Piston Cup Championship against two competitors – veteran racing-circuit winner The King (NASCAR champ Richard Petty) and middle-aged show off Chick (Michael Keaton), who’s willing to do anything, including cheating, to get what he wants.

Thanks to a series of offbeat mishaps, Lightning winds up in Radiator Springs, a one-stoplight place where he develops a love/hate relationship with Cozy Cone Motel proprietress Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a Porsche 911 who abandoned her former life as a fast-rising attorney in L.A. He befriends good-old-boy tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, in fine redneck form) and develops a grudging rivalry with town judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, gravelly), a 1951 Hudson Hornet with some skeletons in his trunk. Cue the welcome appearance of Randy Newman’s poignant “Our Town,” as sung by James Taylor.

The cast of local yokels also includes 1960s hippie VW bus Fillmore (George Carlin), who loves to crank up Hendrix and insists that others “respect the classics”; ultra-patriotic Army jeep Sarge (Paul Dooley), Fillmore’s nemesis; Ramone, an auto-body painter and low-riding 1959 Impala (Cheech Marin); and excitable tire-shop owner Luigi (Tony Shalhoub).

Pixar regular John Ratzenberger, as Lightning’s true-blue friend Mack, is also in the solid voice cast, as well as Katherine Helmond, Jeremy Piven, Jay Leno, “Car Talk” hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi, racers Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mario Andretti, and Bob Costas and Darrell Waltrip as announces Bob Cutlass and Darrell Cartrip.

“Cars” isn’t quite as funny or knowing as its Pixar predecessors, but Lasseter isn’t shy about loading the movie with lots of puns and plenty of sight gags, including a hilarious play on cow tipping.

And, not unlike Disney movies of yore, this one comes with a moral to the story, as succinctly stated by Lightning, when he makes a confession to one of his newfound friends: “Under the hood, you and I are exactly the same.”

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