The new Pixar movie is called Cars (Disney). It’s hard to think of a title that would more instantly light up the hearts of men and boys, except, perhaps, Nachos. The movie’s hero is Lightning McQueen, a race car (voiced by Owen Wilson) who is poised to become the first rookie to win the Piston Cup. He’s also cocky and vain and doesn’t have any real friends. A highway mishap leaves Lightning stranded in a one-horse Western town, where the local carfolk, led by a crusty doctor (Paul Newman), teach him valuable lessons about trust and sharing. Lacking a 7-year-old in my life, I often hesitate to go to Pixar movies since they contain such direct blasts of emotion. More than anything else, they celebrate friendship, or rather, the time when friendship mattered most. Cars does this splendidly; it will make a zillion dollars.
The opening montage was something of a shock: a race around an oval track with pounding rock music and revving engines. I worried that the director, John Lasseter, had overdosed on NASCAR, and some kids near me started freaking out. Soon the movie settled down and everyone began to laugh. This was when Larry the Cable Guy showed up. He gives voice to Mater, a rusty tow truck with buck teeth and a warped mind. Before you shout “stereotype,” realize that the image of the South in this movie is positive. The Southern-inflected world of car racing is presented as one ruled by chivalry and honor, where people decry cheating and respect the achievements of their elders. (The venerable star of the racing circuit is a stoic, gentlemanly car known as The King, voiced by Richard Petty.) Plus, what sense of humor would deny Larry the Cable Guy? His drawl is a lovely instrument, overflowing with character. He delivers the movie’s sweetest line: “I knew I made the right decision … choosing you as my best friend.”
The heartfelt sentiments of youth are just one part of the Pixar formula: The other is a virtuoso visual intelligence. Liberated from physical restraints and grounded in meticulous storyboarding, the scenes of Cars are never static. And, while the movie may have one joke, it’s a very good one: Imagine every type of humanity represented by some sort of car. A 1960 VW bus is a genial hippie who sells organic oil. The fans in the infield during the races are giant RVs with elaborate roof attachments for drinking beer. Lightning’s love interest is Sally Carrera, a Porsche 911 who left the fast life in California and “just kept driving” until she wound up in the backwater of Radiator Springs. Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) is also the conscience of the movie. Accompanied by a James Taylor song, she tells us how the town was once a bustling place, with its beautiful location on “the mother road,” Route 66. But then the interstate came, the traffic stopped, their friends moved away, and the town died, all because people wanted to save a few minutes of travel time. A nice story, but just try driving a classic like Route 1 for a few miles and see how quickly you hightail it back to I-95.
Lasseter and his team would naturally have affection for the local and unique. It’s a mirror of the way Pixar works, with each animator perfecting his own small patch of brilliance. The scene where Mater and Lightning go tractor-tipping (the automotive analog for cow-tipping) is one of the most heartwarming on-screen bondings since Elliott and E.T. went for a bike ride. There is also a lively “date” of sorts when Lightning and Sally go on a motorly frolic through the Southwestern landscape. And, whoever was in charge of the neon lighting should get a promotion. Like its predecessors, Cars builds some terrific momentum, piling on the visual gags, arch references, and throwaway jokes. I don’t know if a 7-year-old would laugh at the detail-perfect depiction of a Japanese newscaster as cute mini-car, but I thought it was great. Indeed, the two-hour running time will send more than a few kids to the pits. Who’s this movie for, again? No matter: It’s impossible to find more joy in the dark at the moment.