After playing the role of a talking motorcycle in Heat Vision and Jack (an hilarious but rejected TV pilot), Owen Wilson now lends his Texas surfer-dude drawl to a race car in the latest production from Pixar. Specializing themselves in the anthropomorphism of everything from toys (Toy Story) to bugs (“A Bug’s Life”) and fish (Finding Nemo), the famed but slightly overrated animation studios give the same treatment to cars in, well, “Cars”.
Lightning McQueen (Wilson) is an arrogant and egocentric star on the NASCAR circuit who’s only concerned with winning the Piston Cup and scoring lucrative sponsorship contracts. But when he strays away somewhere along Road 66 and finds himself in Radiator Springs, a little town in the middle of nowhere, McQueen discovers that there’s a whole world beyond racetracks. If some residents like Doc Hudson (the voice of Paul Newman), a former NASCAR champion himself, aren’t thrilled with the newcomer’s arrival, others immediately befriend him, notably Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a rust-covered redneck tow truck and Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a seductive Porsche.
What we have here is the good old story of the stranger who first inspires suspicion, but eventually wins the trust and respect of a community. The fact that the characters are four-wheeled allows for obvious but rather amusing associations between vehicles and personality types: the army jeep is an old conservative, the Westfalia is a hippie, etc. “Cars” is almost non-stop gags, some childish (backfiring=farting), some more risqué (watch those NASCAR groupies flashing their headlights!). While entertaining and visually spectacular, this tale is less touching than what Pixar has used us too, even though -maybe because- the themes are similar. Director John Lasseter is allegedly obsessed with “the mechanics, the ornamentation, the whole history of automobiles”, and you can tell he and his crew had a great time designing “Cars”. Yet, if you personally don’t have any emotional investment with that stuff and it mostly reminds you of noise and smoke, it’s not quite as charming. Nonetheless, one can appreciate the little lesson about how in the highway of life, it’s sometimes good to slow down and enjoy the crossroads.