Lightning McQueen (left) and Sally Carrera in Disney's/Pixar's "Cars."
( Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)
If ogres, mice and mastodons can be lovable cartoon characters, why not cars? That was the reasoning of John Lasseter, chief animator at Pixar.
Lasseter, whose father was a car-parts distributor, has poured his love of automobiles into a state-of-the-art contraption called "Cars." Yet even though it's a technical tour-de-force, it's powered by a human heart through a roadway of natural wonders and cultural signposts en route to the checkered flag.
At first, the racing motif seems like an overly calculated attempt to woo the Wal-Mart demographic. The young'n with a lesson to learn is Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), a rookie who's rising so fast on the stock-car circuit that he's ready to ditch his loyal-but-boring sponsor, Rust-Eze. The racing scenes are almost frighteningly vivid, but Lasseter lowers the volume and raises the warmth when the movie reaches its true destination.
On the way to the championship race in California, Lightning bounces off the transport truck and into a dusty little town, Radiator Springs. It used to be an oasis on Route 66, but the town was bypassed by the interstate and is withering in the desert sun.
Lightning is in such a hurry to get back on track that he's busted for tearing up the main street. When gruff judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) sentences Lightning to fix the road, the restless racer is forced to get cozy with the locals, including mellow VW Fillmore (George Carlin), low-riding pin-striper Ramone (Cheech Marin), dopey tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a curvaceous refugee from the big city who runs the Cozy Cone Motel.
Between locking horns with Doc, cruising the mountain passes with Sally and tipping over tractors in the moonlight with Mater, Lightning discovers an alternative to life in the fast lane.
Although the story is familiar and lacks the classic Disney detour into child psychology, there's beauty in the details - specifically, the character design, the voices and the background drawings. Lasseter's inspiration for putting eyes on car windshields was a 1952 Disney short "Susie the Little Blue Coupe," and the expressive "faces" soften what could have been a soulless toy commercial.
They're perfectly matched to the voices, the best of whom are Newman and the surprisingly likable Larry the Cable Guy.
But the real star of the movie is Radiator Springs, from the twilight hues of the surrounding desert to some of the most gorgeously rendered roadside architecture since the heyday of film noir. When, in a flashback, the town's optimistic offer of homemade goods and heartfelt customer service is spurned by the speeding cars on the new interstate, the ache for a vanishing America is contagious.
It's ironic, then, that a movie made with computers should rekindle the creative spirit that is symbolized by Route 66. "Cars" is a sweet and stylish ride to a place where you can still get your kicks.
Running time: 1:56
Bottom line: A visually spectacular, heart-tugging 'toon