With “Cars,” Pixar’s enviable streak of creative triumphs comes to a skidding stop. Despite representing another impressive technical achievement, it’s the least visually interesting of the computer-animation boutique’s movies, and — in an ironic twist for a story about auto racing — drifts slowly through its semi-arid midsection. Periodic bursts of cleverness brighten the festivities, but they’re too few and far between, and the trademark humor that appeals to adults and kids often misfires. Pic should still possess plenty of G-rated horsepower commercially, but falls short of being the coming-out party Disney doubtless hoped for to showcase its Pixar acquisition.
John Lasseter, Pixar’s leading creative force, is a self-proclaimed car enthusiast, and this marks his first directing effort since 1999’s “Toy Story 2” — preceded by “A Bug’s Life” and the original Buzz-Woody team-up. (Joe Ranft, his co-director, died last year after completing work on the film.)
Yet passion for the project notwithstanding, Lasseter discovers there are only so many car puns he and five other credited writers can exhaust. And while adults might chuckle over pop-culture references to, say, funny-car “Jay Limo,” both they and many kids will grow antsy after an introductory racing sequence.
That race introduces Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a brash racecar with a lone-wolf attitude. Lightning eschews hiring a crew chief, and his competition against the surly Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and veteran legend the King (racer Richard Petty) sets up a showdown in California a week hence. As a sign of his go-it-alone mentality, Lightning balks at trying to drum up enough friends to fill the 20 tickets allotted him.
Heading cross-country, Lightning inadvertently winds up marooned in the moribund Route 66 town of Radiator Springs, where his daredevil antics run afoul of the local judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). As punishment, Lightning is forced to repave the town’s decrepit road — a task he pursues with reluctance, given his goal of reaching California to win the Piston Cup.
Bypassed by Interstate 40, Radiator Springs features the usual assortment of colorful characters, in an all-car cast that includes an attractive Porsche, Sally (Bonnie Hunt); the slightly addled tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy); and a half-baked van that runs on “organic fuels,” appropriately voiced by George Carlin. The question is how long it will take for Lightning to revive the town, while simultaneously learning the meaning of friendship.
Alas, “too long” is the answer, and barring the boisterous antics of blue-collar comic Larry, there’s not much to make the time speed by. Granted, there are amusing sight gags involving the local bugs (in keeping with the automotive theme, Volkswagens with wings) and “tractor tipping,” but like Lightning himself, the action simply keeps running out of gas.
Even Randy Newman’s score isn’t particularly distinguished, or too frequently gets drowned out by the sound of roaring tires. Nor will the racing sequences galvanize those who aren’t NASCAR fans, despite an astounding display of computer-generated wizardry and detail — from the car-filled stadiums down to the little grooves on the track.
Still, nothing here approaches the undersea wonder of “Finding Nemo,” the childlike inspiration behind “Monsters Inc.” or the excitement and sly wit of “The Incredibles” — a high standard, admittedly, but the expectation bar against which all Pixar ventures inevitably will be judged.
Where “Cars” works best, frankly, might be in oiling the synergistic wheels of the Disney-Pixar marriage — offering the enticing prospect of theme park tie-ins, battery-powered toys and other assorted merchandising.
Ultimately, however, those benefits are only maximized if the movie delivers, and while the inventive closing-credit animation should send patrons out smiling, that breezy detour arrives at the end of a dusty, near-two-hour ride.
Pixar’s run of hits has been nothing short of amazing, rivaling Disney’s early animated classics. Yet after assembling its version of the magnificent six, the company has settled for at best a so-so seventh.