Generally speaking, there's nothing terribly wrong with Cars, the latest animated family film from John Lasseter and the gang at Pixar. Set in a car-only world, it follows shiny selfish race-car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) as he gets sidetracked in the dusty Southwestern town of Radiator Springs and learns about loyalty and friendship from the rusty old bangers that live there.
Yet Pixar has raised the bar so high on its product ... a string of computer-animated hits starting with 1995's Toy Story that just seemed to get better ... that I was disappointed to find Cars not as charming and clever as I hoped.
The best of Pixar's works appear effortless. Making a car-only universe where cars act like people is a cute idea, but Cars occasionally strains under the concept. Vehicles can't be completely re-imagined to account for all human behavior; for instance, the auto-paparazzi ... cars with cameras mounted on their sides ... are awkward, and their literalness betrayed what should be the magic of an alternate reality.
For the adults, Cars' central lesson is about slowing down and appreciating the good people and places we miss when whizzing by. In a nod to real life, this admonition is literalized in a paean to the once lively, now forlorn Route 66, on which Radiator Springs sits. Nonetheless, I found the concept of cars complaining about how interstates ruined everything to be a trifle mind-bending.
A series of buttes outside of town that resemble the famed Cadillac Ranch art installation is slyly clever, but there's a fine line between homage and crassness. While Cars' extended "Piston Cup" racing sequences look great and get the details right, they're unmistakably today's NASCAR ... right down to participants Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Jr. ... and not some thrillingly other fantasy world.
And surprisingly, Cars takes the easiest route in voice-casting by assigning actors their signature shtick in what amounts to stereotyped vehicles: Cheech Marin (Hispanic lowrider), George Carlin (aging hippie/microbus) and Larry the Cable Guy (genial hillbilly/rusty truck).
From its blatant tie-ins with NASCAR, its cheap nods to pop culture (Jeremy Piven reprises his agent role from Entourage) and its assortment of certifiably commercial song remakes by John Mayer and Rascal Flatts, Cars felt like the most orchestrated-to-be-a-hit flick that Pixar has produced.
To assuage my peevishness, I waited for those golden Pixar moments, when the sublime off-kilterness of the film would transport me ... and thankfully, they're there (no spoilers, but one involves neon). The animation is, as expected, top-notch ... every micro-detail lovingly recreated from the reflection in a car's chrome bumper to the breathtaking "scenery" of the Southwest. To be sure, there are some potholes in Cars. But hey, these days when is auto travel all its cracked up to be?