John Lasseter -- the guiding light behind the computer-animation revolutionaries at Pixar -- has apparently grown weary of all the focus on his movies' gee-whiz-ardry. Ever since Toy Story launched a revolution in animated movie-making, the conventional wisdom has been that viewers were no longer interested in old-school cel animation -- not as long as there was faster, shinier, newer technology to deliver the kid stuff. So for his first directing gig since Toy Story 2 in 1999, Lasseter decided to launch a sly attack on an American culture that only seems to value the faster, shinier, newer thing.
Like every one of the six previous features Pixar has delivered, Cars is smart, snappy, entertaining cinema. And like every one of those six previous features, it's grounded in fundamentally strong storytelling -- you know, the kind of thing that's not supposed to matter all that much any more in movies. It's funny, warm and charming, yes -- but it's also wise in a way that's almost enough to make you want to weep.
That's probably not what you're expecting from a premise involving anthropomorphized auto racing. Our flawed hero is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hot-shot rookie convinced he's destined for greatness. He manages a tie for the Piston Cup points lead despite a bout of egomania in the season's final race, leading to a three-way race-off involving legendary champion "The King" (real-life legendary champion Richard Petty) and rival Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). But on the cross-country trip to the venue in California, Lightning is inadvertently left behind in the dying Southwest town of Radiator Springs. And when a little road rage earns him a sentence of community service from the stern local judge/mechanic Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), he's stuck out of the limelight.
There's more than a whiff of familiarity to Cars' chassis-out-of-water scenario. Essentially, it's an animated version of Doc Hollywood, with Bonnie Hunt voicing the role of the smart romantic foil as a Porsche named Sally. Lasseter and his team of writers obligingly provide a collection of great comic relief characters: Larry the Cable Guy as enthusiastic tow truck Mater, who becomes Dory to Lightning's Marlin; George Carlin as hippy-dippy VW bus Fillmore; Tony Shalhoub as little import Luigi, who treats his tire store like a restaurant. The completely car-inhabited world is filled with the same kind of wonderful details that made Monstropolis or Finding Nemo's reef so charming, like tiny flying "bugs" that are VW Beetles, or a courtroom bar that's actually a guardrail. Throw in a couple of Lasseter's brilliantly choreographed action set pieces, and it's exactly the kind of freewheeling -- if basically recognizable -- fun that we're all supposed to crave.
Except that it's also more. At its expansive heart, Cars is an affectionate, almost mournful story of how easy it is to leave anything that isn't hot and happenin' -- anything that isn't this year's model -- in the dust. Lightning longs to abandon his demographically undesirable sponsor Rust-Eze -- think the automotive equivalent of hemorrhoid medication -- for flashier deals. Doc Hudson, we learn, was once a great racing champion himself, abandoned to the scrap heap after a wreck and embittered by the experience. And in a terrific, heartbreaking sequence reminiscent of Toy Story 2's "When She Loved Me," Sally tells Lightning about how Radiator Springs collapsed as a result of the new interstate bypassing historic Route 66. Lightning's character arc isn't just to become nicer -- it's to realize that faster isn't always better, that it's important to look in the rearview mirrors he so conspicuously lacks. It's important to develop a sense of history.
It probably seems ironic that a Pixar production would embrace such thematic material, especially when the spectacular waterfalls and reflective surfaces of Cars' characters require ever-faster, ever-more-powerful computers. Lasseter still loves to pack little details into the margins -- like name-checking Toy Story with Lightning's preferred tire brand "Lightyear," or casting Entourage's Jeremy Piven as the voice of Lightning's agent -- that constantly force you to keep up with what he's throwing at you.
But Lasseter is also a guy with a rich sense of his chosen field's own history. He has always understood the importance of emotional storytelling in Disney's rise to become the gold standard for family entertainment, just as he understood that it was possible to merge that sensibility with the sly visual humor of Chuck Jones-era Warner Bros. cartoons.
There's a certain poetry to Cars marking Lasseter's post-Pixar-merger ascendance to the throne at Disney animation. His movies soar not because he was always looking forward, but because he has always had the good sense to check his rearview mirrors.