2006, PG, 116 min. Directed by John Lasseter. Voices by Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., June 9, 2006

Muscling for rank in the crowded box-office speedway, this Pixar contender takes an early lead but loses momentum in the middle third. “This movie is too long,” remarked my four-year-old companion. “He needs to go back to the race track.” We start off with a bang as rookie race-car Lightning McQueen (the voice of Wilson) roars to a photo finish with gentlemanly retiring champion the King (Richard Petty) and obnoxious upstart Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). At stake is sponsorship by the Dinoco oil company and something called the Piston Cup. (“Did what in his cup?” a character inevitably jokes.) The opening scene is Pixar at its best: a miraculously realized otherworld populated entirely by motor vehicles, rendered with gorgeous detail and rambunctious energy that should delight audiences of any age. The visuals are dense and layered – the stadium audience of thousands of cars does “the wave” by flashing their headlights, and Lightning McQueen really does look like Wilson – and the gags come at a rapid clip. (McQueen’s sponsor is the unglamorous Rust-Eeze Medicated Bumper Ointment, and its spokesmen are ramshackle incarnations of Tom and Ray Magliozzi.) But McQueen has to learn the error of his ways (“I’m a one-man show,” he insists, eschewing a crew chief), so the movie strands him in Radiator Springs, a dilapidated stop on historic Route 66, where he learns the true meaning of friendship from the locals: a sexy Porsche (Hunt), a rusty tow-truck (Larry the Cable Guy), two Italian tire specialists (Shalhoub and Quaroni), and Doc (Newman), who might or might not be a retired racer himself. Life is slow in Radiator Springs, and the movie is too, even though its heart is in the right place – championing vanishing small-town America. (Regrettably, a sentimental Randy Newman song reminds that “main street isn’t main street anymore,” while angling for an Oscar.) It’s fine enough, and the characters are cutely conceived – Quaroni’s powder-blue, three-wheeled Eurotruck steals the show – but the film’s energy dribbles out like leaked oil while McQueen struggles to pave a road and romance Sally. A slew of writers and two script doctors (Robert L. Baird and Dan Gerson, who helped turn the story of Chicken Little into a massive clusterfuck with an alien invasion) keep churning out the jokes (George Carlin is a VW minibus with psychedelic flashbacks and organic biodiesel), but the movie stalls on its heavy-handed messages, which are pitched at an adult level. Can children understand an elegy for historic roadside America? Few in our audience could, and several viewers were carried out fussing. The best all-ages movies, like Toy Story and Dreamworks’s Shrek, work well on multiple levels, with clever asides tucked into a classical quest narrative. Cars is a nostalgic and at times slowly paced movie about adult problems, and its story is fundamentally less engaging. It picks back up at the end, to be sure, but doesn’t regain its lead. Never really quite great, it’s still a good enough diversion for the family and should please adult fans of racing.

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