I'm sure someone looked over at the Supreme Being the day after the Big Bang and said, "Great job, now what have you got for an encore?" So it may not say anything about Cars, Pixar's latest foray into the bits-and-bytes world of computer animation, that I was unable to summon up quite the enthusiasm I did for Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. (A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc.? Eh.) Or maybe it does say something about Cars, or something about cars. Toys, fish, bugs - each has its expressive potential. But cars, despite the ingenious things Pixar has done to them, and despite our country's century-long love affair with them, don't respond all that well to the kind of anthropomorphic treatment that cartoons specialize in. For whatever reason, I kept looking for the people inside.
Okay, so I'm automotively challenged. Heck, I wasn't even that into Hot Wheels, but something tells me Pixar founder John Lasseter, who's back in the director's chair for the first time since Toy Story 2, was. Like so much of his work, Cars harks back to his baby-boomer childhood - pre-OPEC, when gas was so cheap it was like engines ran on air. But the movie's set in the NASCAR present, where our hero, a hotshot hotrod named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), has steered himself into the pole position for the next Piston Cup. In an opening sequence that leaves most other cinematic depictions of stock-car racing in the dust, Lightning shows us what he's made of. But he's too cocky, always tooting his own horn. And he seems to think he got the checkered flag without the help of a pit crew.
Look out, ahead: life lesson. While on his way to the Piston Cup finals in Los Angeles, Lightning gets sidetracked, lured off the interstate to a town that can barely be found on a map but used to be one of those places where you got your kicks, on Route 66. Actually, Radiator Springs, though baking in the sun near Monument Valley, seems closer to Mayberry, or that town Michael J. Fox wandered into in Doc Hollywood. And Cars, which had been racing along, starts coasting a bit, even stopping on occasion to enjoy the scenery. The change of pace is welcome. And so are the residents of Radiator Springs, especially a good ol' boy in the shape of a battered tow truck, whom Larry the Cable Guy endows with all sorts of redneck, blue-collar charm. For fun, these two go tractor-tipping, which is like cow-tipping, only with, you know, tractors.
To make a long (nearly two hours long) story short, Lightning learns that 1) sometimes, you gotta turn right to turn left, and 2) it's kinda nice to slow down every once in a while. Valuable lessons, indeed, but not the kind of thing that's going to get your average 10-year-old's engine revving. (And when will Pixar make a movie more for 10-year-old girls than for 10-year-old boys?) Cars is a very enjoyable ride, and it shows the same fanatical attention to detail - reflective surfaces that would have had the Dutch masters weeping, for example - that has made all the Pixar productions such marvels to behold. And why anybody would ask for more than that is beyond me. But I found myself asking for just a little bit more - more humor, for one thing. Having soared so high for so long, Pixar is in the unenviable position of having to top itself. In that sense, and only in that sense, Cars comes up short.