Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/19/08 w/ Additional Edits.
Ever since the release of 1995's landmark film Toy Story, the 3-D computer-animated film changed the cinema forever with its unique look as animation was reinvented. The film coming from a fledgling studio called Pixar backed by Disney would become the predominant 3-D computer animation studio that would put out quality films that each had a unique look and feel. Since the release of Toy Story, Pixar studios and its film directors John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Brad Bird had created unique films that were often critically acclaimed and huge box office hits. In 2006, Pixar co-founder John Lasseter returned to the director's chair after co-directing 1999's Toy Story 2 for an entertaining, thrilling story about a race car and his exploration of life in the film simply entitled Cars.
Directed by John Lasseter along with co-director Joe Ranft based on their story co-written with Jorgen Klubien and Brenda Chapman. Cars tells the story of a rookie race car named Lightning McQueen who suddenly gets lost in a small, quaint little town called Radiator Springs on U.S. Route 66. After an accidental act of vandalism, McQueen is ordered to fix the town's road as he meets the town's eccentric characters while learning about life and racing. With an all-star cast that included Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, George Carlin, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Keaton, Michael Wallis, Katherine Helmond, racing legend Richard Petty, and Pixar regular John Ratzenberg. Cars is an excellent, exciting, and entertaining film from John Lasseter and company.
It's the Dinoco 400 as a bunch of cars race for the coveted Piston Cup. Yet, the top three racers are longtime champion the King (Richard Petty), veteran contender Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and new rookie sensation Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). Yet, despite McQueen's talents and charisma, the rookie is cocky and arrogant often working alone with a frustrated pit crew. Despite being in a three-way tie, McQueen dreams of winning King's old Dinoco sponsorship that would put him at the top even though he got a break from the Rusteze bumper ointment company. Hoping to make it to California before Hicks does to get the Dinoco deal with big truck Mack (John Ratzenberger), something happens as a tired Mack loses McQueen during the trip to California.
Lost, McQueen finds himself on the famed Route 66 where he enters the quaint town of Radiator Springs and causes trouble by accidentally ruining the town's road. After the old sheriff (Michael Wallis) arrests him, McQueen meets the town's judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) who orders him to fix the road for community service. Even as it was the town's local motel owner/Porsche Miss Sally (Bonnie Hunt) makes the suggestion in hopes to raise the town's spirit. Having to drag the road-paving machine Bessie, McQueen meets many of the town's locals including the tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the tire owner Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and his assistant Guido (Guido Quaroni), the gas station owner Flo (Jenifer Lewis) and her paint-job artist Ramone (Cheech Marin), the hippie Volkswagen bus Filmore (George Carlin), the army surplus jeep Sarge (Paul Dooley), the elder bumper sticker patron Lizzie (Katherine Helmond), and the shy fire truck Red (Joe Ranft).
While McQueen has to contend with the town and its ways, he starts to find to find himself part of the town as he makes friends and learns about Doc Hudson's past as the racing legend Hudson Hornet. After being found by the media, McQueen reluctantly returns to his lavish lifestyle as he finds himself missing the town he's grown to love. With the race for the Piston Cup happening and McQueen uninspired, he gets some unexpected help to race for the championship.
While the film has the sheer look and spirit of all the Pixar films John Lasseter and his team had created. Cars stands out for its sense of entertainment, an exploration into the world of NASCAR as well as its look into the wonders of America on the road. Yet, what the film lacks is a strong story since in comparison to the films Pixar had created before and since. It's approach is also more commercial than the rest of its films since it's more geared for entertainment than taking any kind of artistic risks. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Despite a huge team of writers and contributors that included Bonnie Hunt, John Lasseter does do a fantastic job in creating a look and style to the film that is true to the spirit of road films, NASCAR, and the wonders of America. Yet, Lasseter is still a storyteller at heart as he provides memorable characters and development that allows the story to be memorable and filled with heart as well as some strong themes.
Cinematographer Jeremy Lasky along with production designers William Cone and Bob Pauley do a superb job in the film's look and lighting as well as capturing the look of the home town and the various locations they recreate for Radiator Springs and Route 66. Editor Ken Schretzmann does an excellent job with the film's cutting in the use of dissolves and transitions to tell the story without delving into hyper-fast cutting styles for the film's racing scenes. Sound editor Michael Silvers and sound designer Tom Myers do a fantastic job with the film's sound work in capturing the sound of tires squeals and engines running for the film's race scenes as well as various work where the sound work is one of the film's highlights. Animation directors James Ford Murphy and Bobby Podesta do an amazing work in the look for each character to give them personality with model cars they play as it works to give the entire film a unique look.
Longtime Pixar contributor Randy Newman does a wonderful job with the film's score that is a mix of ragtime and country music to capture the spirit of Middle America and the world of NASCAR. The soundtrack though is a mixed bag despite the fact that it captures the spirit of the film. With old-time music ranging from the Chords, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, and Jimi Hendrix, the rest of the soundtrack includes such mainstream artists as Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, James Taylor, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, and of all things, Kenny G.
The voice cast is truly superb with cameo appearances from previous Pixar contributors Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Dave Foley, Billy Crystal, and John Goodman playing their respective Pixar characters in the form of cars as a tribute of sorts to John Ratzenberg’s contributions. Other noted cameo appearances from Bob Costas, Jay Leno, Mario Andretti, Michael Schumacher as a Ferrari, Richard Petty's wife Lynda as Mrs. The King, Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Junior, racing legend Darrell Waltrip as Costas' co-broadcaster, Richard Kind and Edie McClurg as two vans trying to find directions, Jeremy Piven in a typecast but funny role as McQueen's agent Harv, and Finding Nemo director as the rusty car Fred. Other Pixar contributors like Lou Romano as a street racing car, the late Joe Ranft (whom the film was dedicated to) as Red and the Peterbilt truck, and John Ratzenberg as the truck Mack whose voice is so memorable that he's one of the reasons that Pixar is the best 3-D animation studio.
Michael Keaton is great as the cheating, 1980s stock-car with a mustache who likes to spur insults on McQueen and cheat as the rival that everyone loves to hate. Racing legend Richard Petty is also great in the role of The King, the 1970 Plymouth Superbird racing legend who gives McQueen advice on being a champion and such. Katherine Helmond is funny as the old 1923 Ford Model T car Lizzie who has some funny one-liners and is often forgetful. Jenifer Lewis is sassy as the 1957 Motorama show car gas station owner Flo who provides the best gas on Radiator Springs while Cheech Marin is cool as the 1959 Chevy Impala Lowrider Ramone who likes to give cars good paint jobs. Michael Wallis is good and funny as the 1949 Mercury Club Coupe police car who makes sure McQueen doesn't try to run away while having to get repairs for his old parts. Paul Dooley is also good as Willys Army model jeep Sarge who often banters with the 1969 VW Bus Fillmore, played wonderfully by George Carlin, who likes to sell organic fuel and listen to Jimi Hendrix.
Tony Shalhoub is excellent as Luigi, the 1959 Fiat 500 who sells tires and only pay attention to European racing circuit with a love for Ferraris yet it's Guido Quaroni as the little Isetta forklift named Guido that steals the show with his hope to put in new tires for a race as he says the word "Peet stop" with such delight. Larry the Cable Guy is hilarious as the rusty 1950s model tow truck Mater who befriends McQueen while teaching him how to drive backwards with fantasies of wanting to ride in a helicopter.
Bonnie Hunt is wonderfully subtle as the voice of reason in her role as the 2002 Porsche 911 model Sally Carrera who shows McQueen a world that is different from the world he's been as she becomes a potential love interest. Paul Newman is superb as 1951 Hudson Hornet model Doc Hudson who despises McQueen for who he is as he later reveals about his own racing past and what happened to him only to become his unlikely mentor. Owen Wilson is perfectly cast as the cocky, arrogant Lightning McQueen, a hybrid of Le Mans endurance racer and Ford, who goes through the biggest development as he learns about being a true winner and having a good team to back him up.
While Cars isn't as superb or as brilliant as other Pixar films, John Lasseter's tribute to NASCAR and the American road films is still an excellent 3-D animation feature film that has enough spark and entertainment value that is undoubtedly watchable. Fans of the films that Pixar have created will feel that Cars is the weakest of the bunch yet in comparison to most 3-D animated films not put out by Pixar. Cars still beats them in terms of heart and technical brilliance. In the end, for a film with memorable characters, lot of energy, and great themes, Cars is the film to go see.
Pixar Films: Toy Story - A Bug's Life - Toy Story 2 - (Monsters, Inc.) - (Finding Nemo) - The Incredibles - Ratatouille - WALL-E - Up - Toy Story 3 - Cars 2 - Brave - Monsters University - Inside Out - The Good Dinosaur - (Finding Dory) - (Cars 3) - Coco - Incredibles 2 - Toy Story 4 - (Onward) - (Soul (2020 film))
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