Plot: Lightning McQueen seems to have it all, as he is a rising star in the race world and is poised to take the top spot soon. But he wants more, he wants bigger, better product endorsement deals and a higher profile presence on the circuit, as he feels he is the best car on the track. Once he wins the Piston Cup, he will prove he is the best and with that victory, the spoils will come. But en route to the most important race of his career, he falls off his transport truck and winds up in Radiator Springs. He also ends up on the wrong side of the law when he accidentally ruins a stretch of road, so now he is stuck in this small, isolated locale. He will need to make amends in order to pay his dues, which means pulling a massive asphalt layer behind him at slow speeds, to repair the damage he caused. But as he is not used to hard work and taking orders, can he do what needs to be done or will his attitude cause him to miss this crucial race?
Entertainment Value: A love letter to Route 66 and simpler times, Cars is a fun, brisk movie with colorful characters, gorgeous visuals, a great voice cast, and enough Pixar magic to make it all come together. The story is a simple one, as Lightning is pretty much a fish out of water and seeing him learn to adjust, embrace the local culture, and better himself is the core arc at work here. A fast car in a slow world might not seem like it has much to offer, but Cars makes the most of that basic concept. I love the world of Cars and how it is built here, with so many varied personas and distinct elements, it makes me curious about the rest of this world. A hippie van, a hayseed tow truck, and a military inspired jeep are examples of taking these real world car styles, then bringing them to life in line with what the brands project. I found it to be quite cool, the stylized designs matched with the personalities, it makes the world interesting and seem like it is alive and deep. The humor is light and does delve into slapstick, but it isn’t a constant silliness, so the story and characters still resonate. Perhaps not quite up there with Pixar’s elite movies, but Cars is still well made and a lot of fun.
As I said above, I appreciate the world building in Cars and the animation is a huge part of why that works so well. The character designs are just cool to soak in and check out all the little details on, while the world itself seems normal in most moments, then you notice all these subtle differences. As always, Pixar pumps in a wealth of detail and depth, so even scenes that are just exposition or comic relief come alive with rich presence and texture. The movie is also able to convey the freedom of the open road in effective ways, which is an important element in the narrative. The cast here is deep and talented, with Owen Wilson in the lead as Lightning McQueen. He brings the brash, over the top persona the role requires, a flashy and impulsive character, but also with a good heart underneath. And most importantly, he is able to nail the “ka-chow” catch phrase, which is beyond crucial here. Paul Newman is excellent as Lightning’s mentor, George Carlin is the burnt out hippie, Larry the Cable Guy is the redneck truck, Cheech Marin is a low rider, and Bonnie Hunt is the smart, capable love interest. I think most of the voice work here is on the mark and even if I don’t like Larry the Cable Guy, he is the natural choice to play a dumb, hayseed truck. I also love Luigi, the little whatever he is supposed to be, tire carrying dude.