It's not your finest day. You're in police custody, trying to pave an impossible stretch of highway and get out of a tiny town you're trapped in. Plus, your celebrity status doesn't seem to help with these nobody models from the 50s. Until a 1959 Fiat 500 called Luigi is visibly thrilled. You grin and tell him who you are, and he yelps with a thick Italian accent: "I must scream it to the world, my excitement from the top of someplace very high."
Then comes the question. "Do you know many Ferraris?" You shrug. "No, no. They race on the European circuit; I'm in the Piston Cup," you boast about your utterly American sport. "Luigi follow only the Ferraris," he frowns, speeding off and leaving you pulling tar. Groan.
You are Lightning McQueen, and, on an ordinary day, never short of fans. You're a bright scarlet stock car and, despite your low-key sponsor not allowing you enough budget for real headlights (stickers will do), you're well on the way to being the first Rookie to win the Piston Cup, quite like a NASCAR-endorsed major racing series. As the next big thing, you're being wooed by the best team, and everything's falling into place. Staying ahead by a lick, you've made it as favourite to win a 3-way tiebreaker for the Cup. With the big race in a week, you're primed to go. Or at least you would be, if you hadn't gotten lost.
The Pixar/Disney alliance is one of the finest collaborations in contemporary cinema, with one smashing success after another (The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, Toy Story). As the animation takes a massive leap forward with each instalment, it isn't a wonder Cars is the most technically proficient animated film ever. Still, it is surprising just how tightly director John Lasseter stretches the 'for audiences of all ages' dictum. While this is possibly the cleverest script among the brightly coloured lot, it remains to be seen how content children are with just the bells and whistles, leaving the jokes for the rest of us.
Because it isn't an amazing story, and we've seen it before. McQueen (Owen Wilson) lives fast (sorry) and it takes him a bizarre small town detour to learn he needs to occasionally take the time to smell the flowers -- or, as the Porsche of his dreams puts it, 'just drive.' On the way, he makes friends and finds a mentor. You get my drift: there's just no twist in this car's tail. But before you begin writing this baby off, hark back to that fish film. Where was the big idea leap in Finding Nemo? It was all characters and colour.
So, just how much character does Cars have? Tons.
I don't know about the kids, but I couldn't recommend an animated big-screen flick to you more. Then again, I'm a motorsport enthusiast with an absolutely Luigi-like bent of mind, so I might be more than a bit biased towards a movie with growling race cars and breathtakingly rendered vintage automobiles, chock-full of references and tributes, cheeky in-jokes and pop-culture allusions. There's a lot of typical cartoony shtick, sure, and simplistic sentimentality galore, but when Lightning McQueen's biggest fans -- a couple of twin red Mazda Miatas called Mia and Tia -- vroom up to him and flash their headlights mischievously in unison, you know this film rocks.
The voice talents are brilliantly chosen. Wilson is the perfect cocky red racecar and, lending his gruffness to a 1951 Hudson Hornet, Paul Newman hasn't been this good a mentor since he whipped Tom Cruise with a pool cue. Larry The Cable Guy is undeniably warm as Mater, the rusty pick-up truck, and Bonnie Hunt's leading lady Sally ('Holy Porsche,' Lightning flips when he sees her as a 911 Carrera) may even mark her finest film.
Cheech Marin is Ramone, a suave 1959 Chevy Impala, and Tony Shalhoub (television's neurotic detective Monk) provides the accent for my man (my Fiat, I guess?) Luigi. And then there's a Mack truck voiced by John Ratzenberger, the unmistakable Cheers actor and virtually Pixar's lucky mascot.
But it's about the cars. The film is detailed to an awesome level, with not just faithfully recreated automobiles themselves but close-ups of hubcaps and car stereos rendered fine enough to make your jaw drop. Repeatedly. Not only can you see brilliantly reflecting chrome and real-enough-to-feel whitewalled tyres, the rust is where the magic lies, with decrepit and dented machines instantly taking on a different character from our usually spiffy leading man. Watching this all-car world is mesmerising, even the tiny bugs encircling fluorescent lights being of the Volkswagen variety.
Racing enthusiasts have a lot to look forward to. 'King' Richard Petty, seven-time NASCAR Championship winner voices veteran racing champ The King, a 1970 Plymouth Superbird. A dramatic crash in the film recreates, frame-by-frame, his accident at the 1988 Daytona 500. There's intense attention to automotive design and constant nods to vintage classics. And there are cameos (and on-track action) that would gladden any ESPN fan.
Cars is a fabulous film, an intelligent, touching, and warmly compelling ride. Kids might like it (I'm still curious) but adults definitely should. This is as good as summer blockbusters get, and, even if you aren't in the mood for animation, I urge you to give this a shot.
I have but one complaint: if there's a car named Sally, she ought to be a Mustang.