For the first time in their history, Pixar blinked. “Cars,” the last movie in the original distribution deal between Disney and Pixar and the first to be directed by John Lasseter since 1999’s “Toy Story 2,” certainly looks like a Pixar movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like one of Pixar’s less imaginative rivals trying to make a Pixar movie, but falling into the tired trappings that Pixar, up to this point, has deftly avoided. It is also two hours long, which is about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be.
The movie begins with the souped up Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a fan favorite on the racing circuit, blowing a lead in his latest race because he refused, once again, to listen to his pit crew chief. The race ends in a three-way tie between Lightning, the obnoxious Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and racing legend “The King” (real life racing legend Richard Petty), and they must all travel to California for a tiebreaker. Lightning insists that his carrier, a semi truck named Mack (John Ratzenberger, of course), drive straight through to California, which results in Mack falling asleep at the wheel, and Lightning sliding out of the back of the truck, finding himself in run-down Radiator Springs. After a mishap wrecks the town’s main road, the local judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) orders Lightning to repave the road. While performing his community service, he befriends tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and falls for the local attorney and motel operator Sally (Bonnie Hunt).
There’s a sweet story in here, one that teaches children the importance of being a good person over being a famous or important one, and reminds them to take in the surroundings rather than spending your life racing from point A to point B. The execution of it, however, is deliberate and tedious. In fact, nearly every Pixar taboo is violated here, from the marketing of the voice talent – something Brad Bird, director of “The Incredibles,” denounced in an interview with “Entertainment Weekly” – to the use of a pop soundtrack instead of a score (no one, repeat, no one asked for Rascal Flatts to cover “Life Is a Highway”). Lastly, there’s the casting of the voice talent, which brings new meaning to the terms ‘old school’ and ‘stereotypical.’ George Carlin is a hippie VW van who sells organic fuel. Cheech Marin’s Ramone runs a detail shop and has a new paint job in every scene. I’m sure these characters were created as amusement for the grownups as they take their tykes to see the movie, but it feels lazy this time, like they didn’t really put much thought into, well, anything. Not only is it overlong, but “Cars” is sorely missing the comedic punch and energy that makes Pixar movies hold up to repeat viewings. And I won’t even discuss the ending, where the movie becomes surprisingly self-referential and takes some painfully easy jokes.
The one thing they did get right, though, is the voice direction. The performances from the leads are all great, with even Larry the Cable Guy showing some dramatic chops. Paul Newman, however, sounds less like himself and more like Lawrence Tierney (a.k.a. Joe, the guy who assigned the names in “Reservoir Dogs”). The movie looks fantastic, too, with a couple stunning shots during Sally and Lightning’s trip into the countryside. But Pixar has always been a story-first studio; it is expected of them that things will look great. Where they excel is how their movies make you feel, and this one didn’t make me feel much of anything.
It is an interesting turn of events that “Cars,” with its top-heavy voice talent, pop soundtrack, and half-hearted in-jokes, plays out more like a DreamWorks Animation movie, while “Over the Hedge,” the most recent (and far superior) movie released by DreamWorks, has the spirit and energy of a Pixar movie. Looks like your secret’s out, Pixar. Now quit fretting about it and start making good movies again. –(2.5 / 5)