293 – Cars

On his way to a big event in California, a conceited race car finds himself stuck in Radiator Springs, a tiny town in the middle of the desert. It’s a typical podunk burg, the very epicenter of Hicksville, and the clean n’ shiny supercharger doesn’t know how to cope. But cope he must, as during his grand entrance he wrecked a good portion of the town’s road.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a pretty sheltered car – he doesn’t even have headlights, since race cars don’t need them (the whole track’s lit, y’see). But he’s not happy with his life as it currently stands; he dreams of winning the famed Piston Cup – even better, of becoming the first rookie car to do so. But the final race of the season winds up a three-way tie, thanks in equal parts to Lightning’s refusal to stop for new tires midrace and his apparently long tongue. At any rate, a special race is scheduled in one week’s time. Naturally, along the way, Lightning is somehow separated from the truck transporting him, and he finds himself in the active, hoppin’ Radiator Springs.

At first the judge in town, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), just wants Lightning to leave as soon as possible, but he’s quickly convinced otherwise by Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), who thinks Lightning oughta fix the road he’s done tore up. Which is only fair, seeing also as he’s the only vehicle in town with enough horsepower to pull the big ol’ tarring contraption.

While he’s there, Lightning naturally makes the acquaintance of the other (few) citizens. Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the town tow truck, immediately befriends Lightning; others include Ramone (Cheech Marin), Flo (Jenifer Lewis), Fillmore (George Carlin), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), and Sarge (Paul Dooley).

By now, we’re all used to Pixar’s animation prowess, but they constantly top themselves. There are no humans in his film. It’s not that there aren’t any in the story, there aren’t any in the cars universe. For instance, the stands at the races are filled with vehicles of all kinds (the inner circle is filled with RV trailers). The motel in Radiator Springs is a series of – get this – traffic cones. The pit crews are made up of small, handy vehicles. There’s even a field populated not by cows but by tractors (Lightning and Mater go tractor tipping), watched over by a gigantic plow.

But even with all of the cars, trucks, and whatnot floating around, even more impressive is the absolute crystal-clear detail in the backgrounds, particularly the canyon and desert sequences. Even if you pause your DVD player and squint reaaaaally hard, you can’t really tell that these aren’t photographs. And, of course, when they’re moving a regular speed your subconscious can’t tell, either. Check out the splash when Sally and Lightning drive through a puddle, and tell me that’s not as realistic as a photo. Go on, do it.

As with the best Disney films, one has to care about the characters, I mean really care about what happens to them. It’s not enough to have someone with dreams of success if that character isn’t all that fascinating to begin with. But Lightning McQueen, bless his self-absorbed self, is appealing, even charming in a preening, egocentric kind of way. See, he’s never really experienced life outside of his racing existence, and he’s always seen his winning the Piston Cup as a way to better himself. Little does he know, of course, that his life will wind up being bettered by the denizens of Radiator Springs – and one certain Porsche in particular – whether he likes it or not!

The movie’s similar in theme to Michael J. Fox’s Doc Hollywood (1991), in which a hotshot doctor gets stuck in a tiny town and has to offer medical services to get his car fixed.The entire cast is a hoot, especially Carlin’s hippie, alternative-fuel Volkswagen minibus – a clear descendent of the comic’s late sixties’ Hippy Dippy Weather Man. Good times, good times.

The main themes are enjoying what one has and embracing different and new people (er, vehicles), but there’s also a side theme of innocent lost. Radiator Springs takes place on the famed Route 66, just a hair’s width away from Interstate 40. It seems that back in the day, Radiator Springs was THE place to stop if one were traveling along 66. But then the interstate was built just to the north, bypassing the town by just a few minutes’ drive. And now no one ever stops. It’s a wry commentary on the real-life Route 66, what parts of it still exist, a true monument to the American spirit.

A fantastic ride from start to checkered flag, Cars is the perfect animated feature – gaggles of giggles for the little tykes and a bevy of knowing jokes for the grownup kids.

****

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