Pixar extends its torrid streak, taking viewers on a charming ride with "Cars."
Poor Pixar. Its computer-animated family films have become so successful that it now has only itself to compete with. And when that pits your latest release against the likes of "The Incredibles," the sublime "Toy Story" movies and "Finding Nemo," you have your work cut out for you.
Lucky us. "Cars," Pixar's first offering under Disney ownership, is a supercharged sweetheart extending an unbroken string of triumphs. It takes everything that's made Pixar shorthand for animation excellence -- strong characters, tight pacing, spot-on voice casting, a warm sense of humor and visuals that are pure, pixilated bliss -- and carries them to the next stage. Once again Pixar is in the driver's seat, blowing the doors off the competition.
Pixar's stories are more or less the same. Take a class of things that fascinate a child (bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes) and imagine them in a society of their own. Take one of them, separate him from the group, and make him lonely. Then reunite everyone in a happy ending. It's the kind of story made up by every kid with a toy box, and part of the movies' universal appeal.
"Cars" adapts that foolproof formula for NASCAR territory, yielding both a rip-snorting racing picture and a first-rate family comedy. It opens with a three-way battle for the checkered flag between ego-fueled hotshot Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), his forceful rival Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and retiring star the King (real-life racing star Richard Petty). In a few minutes of relentless action, we understand the competitors' personalities. The King is a worthy sportsman, Chick wants to win at all costs (his sponsor is Hostile Takeover Bank), and Lightning is a gifted but cocky speedster who doesn't value his pit crew.
The race ends in a dead heat, with a rematch in California. Lightning is en route when a trailer mishap leaves him stranded in the dilapidated desert outpost of Radiator Springs. Worse, a local judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) makes Lightning stay to work off his community service for damaging a stretch of roadway on arrival.
The story downshifts in its second act. The turbocharged Lightning gets a tuneup in the values department as he watches the automotive citizens support one another.
The slow pace and getting-to-know-you structure may agitate some squirmy young viewers, but it's a needed breather before the vrooming finale. A Pixar movie is always more than a bolted- together series of gags. They understand that the hardest engineering job of all is to build an emotion.
Director John Lasseter ("Toy Story") and his team have created a remarkably lovely and detailed world. The cars are delightfully expressive, their windshields re-imagined as big, communicative eyes, their grilles twisting into chrome smiles and sneers. But Pixar's artists lavish meticulous attention on every aspect. Sunlight is sharper at noon, incandescent lightbulbs, neon signs and trippy black-light posters have their own distinctive glow, and distant rock formations have the rosy warmth of Maxfield Parrish landscapes. There are moments of such gratuitous beauty that you catch your breath.
The creativity extends beyond the images. The film is peppered with internal jokes (gnats as tiny winged VW Beetles) and charming, offhand references to other Pixar movies (the final credits are a sidesplitting trip down memory lane).
"Cars" is a decidedly boy-oriented movie, more focused on good sportsmanship, teamwork and loyalty than the openly sentimental "Nemo" and "Toy Story" movies. But while it lacks arpeggios on the heartstrings, it has kinetic energy and good humor to spare. "Cars" not only rolls, it rocks.
The setup: A hotshot racer (voiced by Owen Wilson) learns to slow down and enjoy life when he's stranded in a one-stoplight desert town.
What works: A warm good humor, a strong story, fine voice talent (including Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy) and the usual Pixar commitment to excellence in animation.
What doesn't: Can you really believe laid-back old Owen Wilson as a hard-charging go-getter?
Great scene: For action, the opening and closing races. For laughs, the final credits, which recasts most of the Pixar film library as movies about cars.