It's the least successful of the Pixar movies, but kids will still be pleased
"Cars" is the story of a hotshot young Piston Cup racer named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson as a character named for late Pixar supervising animator Glenn McQueen rather than screen icon Steve). Lightning is a brass, ego-driven new star who believes he can take on the world by himself. He runs into trouble, though, when he gets stranded in the town of Radiator Springs, a near ghost town located off of Route 66. He wants to make it to California to compete in a climactic race, but the residents of Radiator Springs need him to help pave the road he accidentally destroyed. Along the way, the motley population of the sleepy community treats Lightning to a lesson on friendship with a heaping dose of nostalgia for the '50s, back when people had values and the journey was more important than the destination.
The Pixar animators work hard on anthropomorphizing our automobile heroes. They have eyes in their windshields, teeth in their bumpers and expressive flexibility. It's difficult not to feel, though, that more effort was put into the reflections off their chrome and the exact colors of their paint-jobs. Also showing Pixar's attention to detail is the Route 66 desert setting, which yields several glorious vistas.
I've heard from other people that after a while they stopped noticing they were watching cars and just accepted them as characters. I didn't. I spent more time wondering why, if these cars exist in a world without humans, they needed to have doors. I also wondered if the Piston Cup conceit of huge crowds of cars watching fellow cars race around a track crashing was perverse in a "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" sort of way.
One of the great Pixar trademarks is memorable supporting characters, getting vivid impressions out of even the smallest parts. Beyond Newman's gruff, but sage Doc Hudson and Larry the Cable Guy's full-of-heart/low-on-brains Mater, few of the supporting automobiles make an impression. The writers must have determined that it was enough to have George Carlin voicing a hippie VW bus and Cheech Marin do an elaborately painted low-rider and that no additional punchlines or purpose were needed. Similarly, auto fans will be amused with the cameos by the likes of Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Schumacher, but they add more than authenticity.
For kids, the unexpected breakout character is likely to be adorable blue racing-obsessed Guido, voiced by Pixar's Guido Quaroni.
Don't expect any particular support, though, for Mad Magazine-grade satirical duds like Jay Limo, Bob Cutlass or Darrell Cartrip, though those names are reflective of the low aspirations of much of the "Cars" humor. If "The Incredibles" was a movie for the child in all of us, "Cars" is mostly just for the real children.
Despite not particularly caring about any of the characters throughout the movie, I still found myself feeling some warmth by the end, which may be a tribute to the typically rousing Randy Newman score, the relatable theme (despite some predictably conservative values), or just to overpowering Pixar magic. Still, this is the company's first movie that I'd have reservations about recommending.
If you're going to go anyway, though, be sure to stay for the first half of the closing credits, which are funnier than anything else in the movie.