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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cars

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t exactly driven to see Cars. I’d enjoyed Pixar’s other animated adventures immensely (Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 1 & 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life), but this was different. It was about automobiles, for goodness sake, and it seemed impossible to me that anyone ~ even the magicians at Pixar Studios ~ could make these metal behemoths cuddly and clever. Well, I was wrong. There. You have it in black and white. I should have had more faith, and, apparently, many of you did because when I made it to opening day on Friday at the Essex Cinemas it already looked like most of Chittenden County had put the pedal to the metal to get there for the first show.

I’ve never seen a NASCAR race in my life, so when the movie opened in the midst of the final laps of one I was afraid I was going to be lost from the get-go. Fortunately, it took only seconds to identify who and what was going on. Lightning McQueen (perfectly cast Owen Wilson; Wedding Crashers), is a hotshot rookie Mustang with an ego that is bigger than his world of experience. He is battling beloved veteran, The King (voiced by real life racer Richard Petty) and perennial second place finisher Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton; Herbie Fully Loaded). The three are competing for the top prize Piston Cup, which brings not only fame but lucrative endorsement deals and possible movie offers. For McQueen, the possible win has already filled his head with dreams of a Hollywood career, and his flashes of a Tom (*ahem*) Cruise leading car role plays out as he attacks extraterrestrial sparkplugs while he continues in real life to fly around the track towards the finish line. Unfortunately, his dream meet a near collision that runs him off the road just long enough to allow for there to end up with a shocking three-way tie, which begins our story and sets up an entirely different journey for Lightning than that which he thought he was about to make, and it is this new detour that makes up the gist of the film.

Because of the tie, a special Championship Race is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles in one week. Along the way to LA, Lightning’s handler Mac (Pixar voice-over veteran John Ratzenberger; Something New), a Mack Truck, naturally, accidentally loses the sleeping race car, who finds himself then stranded in Radiator Springs, a nearly abandoned town on what was once
Route 66, long ago bypassed by the interstate several miles away.

Through his own carelessness, McQueen’s entry to the town is memorable not just because he is the first visitor in ages, but because he manages to destroy most of the one main street in the process. This lands him in trouble with the local judge, Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet voiced by Paul Newman (Road to Perdition) of all people, er, autos. Doc sentences the self-absorbed speedster to repave the thoroughfare, a fate Lightning considers beneath him as the Big Wheel he considers himself to be. He hates this “hillbilly hell” as he calls it, and all of the supposed yokels who reside there.

Eventually, as he spends more time in Radiator Springs, he realizes that this unwanted pit stop isn’t the torture he thought it was. He comes to know many of the locals, especially Mater ~ as in To’ Mater ~ the rusty Tow Truck (breakout favorite played by and modeled after Larry the Cable Guy; tv’s Blue Collar TV), and a cute 2002 blue Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt; Loggerheads) who escaped the city to enjoy life in the slow lane.

The all-star vocal cast also includes free-wheeling performances by racing legends Darrell Waltrip (as Darrell Cartrip), Mario Andretti, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (as Junior), as well as Tom and Ray Magliozzi (radio’s “Click & Clack” from Car Talk), Bob Costas, Tony Shalhoub, George Carlin, Edie McClurg, Jeremy Piven, Katherine Helmond, Paul Dooley, Jay Leno (as Jay Limo no less), and Cheech Marin, among others.


The most amazing part of the film, aside from its’ heart, is its’ dazzling animation. Cars raises the bar as Pixar continues to top itself with every new picture. The gorgeous desert shots, the detail of the town’s decay as well as its’ rejuvenation in a neon display of its’ former glory, and the artists’ startling ability to bounce shadows and sunlight reflections across the hoods of the automobile characters is awe-inspiring. Still, as much of a visual feast as Cars is, without an effective and even touching story to tell its’ appeal would be hollow. Here, Cars fires on all cylinders. Lightning’s transformation from accelerated ass to carbureted cuddly is believable and offers good lessons for viewers without making us feel like we’ve been hit with a tire iron by the morality police along the way.

Cars is definitely a gas, and I can’t think of a nicer ride than to cruise on down to the Essex Cinemas for a couple of hours. I guarantee you’ll leave feeling as revved up as I did.

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