Car toons

Movie trailers can be deceiving. Sometimes they give away too much. Occasionally, like Gap ads, you have no idea what they’re selling. Then there are bad previews that make you scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about. Pixar makes great movies. Unfortunately, they don’t make very good previews. I remember seeing the trailers for both Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and thinking to myself, well, you can’t hit a homerun every at-bat. Then the films came out and blew away every one of my hesitations.

When I first saw the trailer, I thought Cars might be a flat tire. Then I saw Cars, and suddenly realized why Pixar films don’t equate into good trailers. One, the studio is constantly dealing with state-of-the-art technology, and until their debut the films are a work in progress; and two, unlike most animated films, the stories Pixar tells are layered and complex, featuring plots that don’t necessarily break down into neat, convenient cutaway clips. You have to see a Pixar film to fully appreciate it.

Cars is no exception, a breathtaking, funny, sweet, soulful, eye-popping exercise in filmmaking, another homerun for Pixar. At first, I was worried the film would resemble nothing more than a glorified Chevron commercial (you know the ones, where the cars talk about their feelings), but what director John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life) has accomplished is honestly amazing. Previous Pixar efforts introduced childhood fantasies to real life (toys that come to life, bugs and fish who talk, monsters in the closet); Cars introduces us to a world where humans are nonexistent.

Cars rule the road, and each and every one has its own distinct personality. Something this truly groundbreaking could only be accomplished through computer animation, and Lasseter and his team of animators not only bring the cars to life, they give them heart and soul. Half the trick is getting voice talent to match the characters, and Cars is pitch-perfect. Owen Wilson is well cast as Lightning McQueen, a hot-shot racer barreling down Route 66 on his way to California and the Piston Cup Championship.

After stopping off in Radiator Springs and running afoul of the law, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a 1951 Hudson Hornet, Lightning is sentenced to community service. Even though Lightning believes he’s just spinning his wheels, the unexpected pit stop allows him to understand there’s more to life than crossing the finish line.

Pretty simple stuff, but hardly ordinary, as Lasseter and his artists fill every frame with clever visual puns, hilarious inside jokes, thrilling race sequences and a bold sense of adventure rarely accomplished in an animated film. It’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. Route 66 serves as a microcosm of Americana, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the resource.

It’s also impossible not to root for Lightning as he goes from one adventure to the next, encountering life-changing characters along the way. A lot of actors working in animated films just pay lip service, but Pixar understands the symmetry which brings these characters to life. They don’t have to just look right, they have to sound right, and the cast goes a long way to making that happen.

Wilson appropriately guns his engine as Lightning, while Newman is rustic as the old timer with a secret. Bonnie Hunt is delightful as a Sally, a sporty Porsche, while a flatbed truck of comedians fuel up some of the film’s most delightful characters, including Larry the Cable Guy as an opportunistic tow truck. The filmmakers honor tradition by recruiting real life NASCAR drivers and announcers, while anyone familiar with cars and engines will marvel at the detail and nods.

Most animated films clock in at 90 minutes or less. Cars crosses the finish line at almost two hours, but it never misfires. If anything, it’s over in a flash, forcing you to see it again in order to appreciate all of the scenery.