Though the big-eyed, childish looking characters of Cars might lead you to think otherwise, what the film really is, is a love letter to the heyday of the American road and the faded mystique of Route 66. What could have been Pixar's most simplistic, preteen-limited film turns out to be one of their biggest and most mature, as it tackles larger themes that'll probably fly right over the heads of kids. Sure, interstate highways are nice, but what are we missing when we're whizzing by on our elevated, disconnected roads?
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is the youngest, most celebrated car on the race circuit. He's brash, self-absorbed, and in love with his own celebrity. When the film opens, he's racing in his profession's biggest competition: the Piston Cup. The winner will get a juicy contract with the sport's wealthiest racing promoter, replacing The King, a respected champion on the verge of retirement. The race ends in a three-way tie, and McQueen must travel cross-country to California to race in a tie-breaker. En route he gets waylaid, and ends up trapped in an almost dead little town lost on the bones of what was once Route 66.
There, we're treated to a stunning display of visual artwork as McQueen travels breathtaking landscapes and meets a motley assortment of classic cars and rusty old junkers living in the last remnants of a once vibrant town, fed off a now dried-up stream of Route 66 travelers. There are moments in this film where you'll forget you're looking at a cartoon. It's a stunning piece of work, a visual masterpiece, the kind of movie that would be a must-see even if the story weren't any good. Sure, the car designs look a little goofy, but they work those designs with every bit of formidable talent and craftsmanship at Pixar's disposal. When they aren't emoting, there are times when you'll forget you're looking at animated characters and think you're just watching freshly polished live-action cars cruising down the open road at breakneck speeds. Who needs drivers?
But it's the characters that really sell Cars. The real surprise is redneck comedian Larry the Cable Guy voicing a brain-dead, rusty old tow truck. Though Larry eventually works in one of his cringeworthy "Git Her Dones," for most of the movie he steals the show, creating another classic character in Pixar's rather impressive pantheon of toy cowboys, fuzzy monsters, and superheroes. Paul Newman is deep and wistful as the town judge Doc Hudson, Tony Shaloub is brilliant as a little Ferrari-obsessed car named Luigi, and Michael Keaton blends right in as McQueen's nemesis Chick. There's only one weak spot in the film when it comes to voice work, and unfortunately it's the movie's lead. Owen Wilson isn't bad as Lightning McQueen — he's just too Owen. It's hard to get very involved in the character when he's played as if the blonde Wilson brother grew wheels and started spewing out air pollution. It's too easy to think of him as Owen instead of Lightning.
It seems almost indecent in these days of skyrocketing gas prices and greenhouse gases to make a movie glorifying a time when Americans hopped in their cars and drove just for the sake of driving. Most of us now find ourselves looking for ways to drive less; we long ago lost whatever joy there was in that unique artifact of Americana, the road trip. We can't afford to drive just for the hell of it. But there was a time before highways when the best way to see the world was to simply punch the gas, roll down the window, and inhale the sweet air. Those days are gone forever, but Cars presents a thoughtful, uniquely American story that asks you to stop and consider what we've lost since abandoning them.