By Joe Lozito
More than any other Pixar film to date, "Cars" is just a standard story told with animated inanimate objects. The exploration of a planet inhabited by living breathing cars is more of an afterthought - the cars in question are just stand-ins for humans in an oft-told story. With his ready-made, kid friendly catch phrase, "Ka-chow", Lightning McQueen, the cocky racecar voiced by Owen Wilson, is just an avatar for any other young hotshot who has to learn that there's more to life than winning the gold. Pixar's genius has always been about surprising us with the depth of their stories. "The Incredibles"
, "Finding Nemo", "Toy Story 2", have all been about characters as multidimensional as their eye-popping animation. "Cars" however only scratches the surface, remaining as glossy and shiny as a new wax job.
Pixar whiz John Lasseter, the man behind the "Toy Story" franchise, grew up in a car culture, so there are many automotive in-jokes to keep the audience amused. But the story of Lightning's detour into a dusty burg called Radiator Springs, and his would-be awakening there, follows such standard notes that the rote melancholy song by Randy Newman evokes more laughter than compassion.
The great thing about a Pixar animated film is: even when the story is subpar, there's still plenty to look at. The filmmakers are equally at home on the race track or Radiator Springs (somewhere off Route 66) where Lightning meets a typically lovable cast of characters including the buck-toothed tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the flashy, hydraulically-equipped Ramone (Cheech Marin) and the Ferrari-loving Italian stereotypes Luigi and Guido (Tony Shaloub and Guido Quaroni). None leave much of an impression, including, unfortunately, Lightning's love interest Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a cute little Porsche (one wonders about the product-placement).
Mr. Wilson is an interesting choice for Lightning. While he's got the right voice for a goofy kids' character, he's never been known for his range. When emotions are called for, he tends to raise his voice an octave or two and speak softly. There are a few hints of wistfulness late in the film as Lightning bonds with Hudson Hornet, voiced - in a bit of inspired casting - by Paul Newman. It's a moment that flirts with disposable car culture the way "Toy Story" memorably tweaked the lives of discarded toys. But by that time "Cars" has long since run out of gas.