If Arnold Schwarzenegger was a car, what kind of car would he be? And what about Jay Leno? “Cars,” Disney and Pixar’s latest foray into the world of almost creepily intricate animation, provides the answers (a Hummer and a flat-faced Aston Martin, respectively), as they once again create vivid environments that somehow seem more real than real life. But while “Cars” is satisfying in a conventional sense, it fails to match the greatness of Pixar’s best efforts (“Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.” and especially “Finding Nemo”) because it can’t find the culture-riffing, ultra-affable charm of the studio’s superior efforts.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, “Wedding Crashers”) is a racecar, a young hot shot on the verge of winning his circuit’s highest award, the Piston Cup. But wouldn’t you know it, he’s immature – a show off who takes all the credit himself and has no friends to boot. Then, on his way to the racing season’s big finale in California, he gets lost and finds himself stuck in a tranquil outpost called Radiator Springs. There, young Lightning briskly learns the lessons that countless characters in second-rate Disney films have before him: You gotta be a team player, winning isn’t everything, friendship rocks, etc.
As expected, the visual imagery in the film is superb, impossibly detailed and sometimes blurring the line between live and animated shots. But it’s now almost five years since a CGI film could woo audiences on visuals alone. “Cars” finds a visual and narrative splendor superior to “Chicken Little” or “Madagascar,” but it remains a cut below elite animated films because the lessons, morals and characters of the film seem to be an afterthought.
There is little ingenuity or creativity apparent in the characters’ personalities; they’re all cars, and we’re supposed to think that that’s innovative enough. Not only does the film lack the real sentimentality that marks the very best of Disney (“The Lion King”), the signature quips and catchphrases aren’t even quotable (“catchow!” is hardly an exception).
That said, Wilson, his characteristic lazy drawl now infused with cockiness and ignorance, does inspire some laughs, especially when interplaying with Tow-mater, his tow-truck pal in Radiator Springs (Larry the Cable Guy, “Blue Collar TV”). There’s also Luigi the tire salesman (Tony Shalhoub, TV’s “Monk”), whose greatest dream is to meet a real-life Ferrari (and then he meets one – racing legend Michael Schumacher), and the hippie ’60s minivan Filmore (George Carlin, “Dogma”), who is convinced that every third blink of a flashing traffic light is slower. But others among the accomplished cast (Paul Newman, Michael Keaton, Bonnie Hunt, etc.) are underused and largely work to confuse and further slow down an already-mangled, anticlimactic plotline.
Deep within the confusing m