Pixar’s seventh feature film “Cars” arrives with more of a sputter than a zoom. It’s a skid, if not entirely a blowout.
Humans are absent from this world; cars show up to watch other cars race. After finishing in a three-way tie with the current champ and an also-ran with a streak of bad sportsmanship (voiced by Michael Keaton), an arrogant, up-and-coming rookie race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) must get to California for a tie-breaker. Due to his arrogance, Lighting finds himself waylaid in the flyspeck burg Radiator Springs, arrested and forced to fix the road he damaged during his arrival.
A former racing champ, Doc Hudson (voiced by real-life racer Paul Newman), lives there, hiding from his former glory. Of course, there’s a girl, a lovely Porsche (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), as well as a redneck tow truck, Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).
Anyone who has been to the movies once or twice can figure out that Lightning gets a soul-reviving dose of old-time, jes-folks, and learns how to behave like a proper gentle-car once again. This would be fine, if the movie surprised us even once. Couldn’t its eight screenwriters have come up with something that wasn’t already used in “Doc Hollywood” (1991)?
Pixar’s best films thus far have evoked and built from dire situations, such as the lawsuits that drove the superheroes out of business in “The Incredibles” (2004) or the mere fact of growing up and leaving childhood things behind in “Toy Story 2” (1999).
At their worst, they give us flat, flawed personality traits that can be easily mended before the two-hour mark, such as Marlin’s agoraphobia in “Finding Nemo” (2003). Fortunately, that film still contained a chest otherwise full of treasures.
Yet, if there is such a thing as great cinematography in an animated film, “Cars” has it; it has a true appreciation for light, from the bright, night-defying stadium glare of the big race, to the warm, morning sun in the desert flats. One shot of a waterfall is as breathtaking as anything photographed in reality. It also gets a sense of speed without chaos — no shaky cam — whether Lightning is dusting someone on the track or simply viewing the passing scenery.
Ultimately, the film’s biggest crime is merely aiming for the younger audience that may have been stymied by “The Incredibles.” The only concession to grown-ups is a funny appearance by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka the “Car Talk” guys from NPR. Drive carefully.