Cars (Buena Vista, G)

Still, out of large hunks of cartoon metal and plastic, the makers of Cars have managed to fashion wildly creative and expressive car-creatures, where grills stand in for mustaches, and Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t just drive a Hummer, he is a Hummer.

 

 

Like the Parkmoor and Coral Courts, the drive-ins of St. Louis belong to a bygone era. Too bad, because I can’t imagine a better place to view the new animated film Cars, Disney-Pixar’s paean to that lost time when cruising was for straight guys in their father’s Oldsmobiles and a V-8 referred to an engine, not a juice.

Sandwiched between ESPN-like coverage of the ’toons’ racing events—complete with the brain-addling, ear-popping, seizure-inducing special effects typical of cable sports’ channels—is the sweet story of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), rookie superstar racecar driver whose speed behind the wheel is outpaced only by his ego. Lightning’s got no friends, but never mind: He’s got fans. When a mishap leaves him stranded in the lonely, dusty town of Radiator Springs, where watching the blinking of the lone traffic light passes for good entertainment, Lightning is offered a chance to learn humility and the pleasures of friendship.

Big mechanical contraptions, like those in last year’s Robots, don’t really loan themselves to the kind of cute animation kids have come to expect from Pixar: lovable monsters, adorable fish, charming toys. Still, out of large hunks of cartoon metal and plastic, the makers of Cars have managed to fashion wildly creative and expressive car-creatures, where grills stand in for mustaches, and Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t just drive a Hummer, he is a Hummer.

The heart of the movie is filled with rueful nostalgia for the pre-interstate days, when people traversed the country on the more leisurely Route 66. “They didn’t drive on it to make good time,” points out Porsche Sally (Bonnie Hunt), “they drove on it to have a good time.” The citizens of Radiator Springs, including detail shop owner Ramone (Cheech Marin) and a Ferrari-obsessed tire salesman (Guido Quaroni), pine for the good old days, before traffic, and customers, were rerouted to the interstate. Meanwhile, the world of stock-car racing is gearing up for the Piston Cup race (“He did what in his cup???” yells one of the characters), and the media won’t rest until Lightning returns to the circuit. Fans of NASCAR might appreciate the pyrotechnics of the race scenes, but harried mothers looking for a few moments of peace as summer vacation gets rolling may be annoyed by the frenzied visuals and earsplitting sounds of the movie’s race scenes.

Once it hits its stride, Cars is an enjoyable enough romp through toonland. What makes it a must-see, however, is the bonus before the movie, a short entitled “One Man Band.” Created by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews, it features two eccentric street performers in old Europe who fiddle and blow their way into a contest to see who will win the coin of a small girl. This visually stunning film has no dialogue, relying instead on the characters’ music and body language to carry the story. While it has no direct tie-in to the movie, like the squirrel cartoons shown with Ice Age, we can still hope that, with the inevitable release of Cars II, we’ll have the chance to see more of this creative team’s work.

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