Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen—a hotshot race car who's earned a chance to go to California to compete for racing's top prize. On his way to the track he gets lost and winds up in Radiator Springs, a sort of "town that time forgot" on a deep bend in Route 66. McQueen ends up getting himself sentenced to community service where he and the residents of the town spend time together (inadvertently) teaching each other about life. That's a loose outline of the plot. To say too much more could spoil the experience. Suffice it to say that things follow a pretty rote formula. More on that in a moment, though.
Technically the film is damn near perfect. It's got some of the most kinetic camera moves I've seen in an animated film. Scenes don't change or fade in this film as much as they arrive with a woosh and transition with that near whiplash you get watching a car fly from turn six to seven. The camera work in those scenes is a type of more fluid cinema verité. It does an excellent job of giving you a race car feel and really conveying the nervous energy of the cars. Everyone in this film exudes anxious anticipation. Even the smaller supporting characters are never static; each car is in constant motion, in a constant search of that piece (the championship race, customers, a soul mate) that is missing from their lives.
For me, the beauty of its technical achievements was also the movie's downfall. The film felt a little too packaged, a little too technical. That's not to say that it felt "computerized" like some recent animated offerings. Granted, with this film you know the technology used to create the movie but in a testament to the work of the artists, the technology doesn't define it. (It's a distinction Pixar and far too few others understand.) What was lost in all of this technical prowess was the emotion. I never was drawn into the story, never connected with the characters. There was a plastic-ness that I couldn't get past and which ended up keeping me at a passive distance. Part of this I think is in the inherent fact that we are dealing with cars. There's only so much you can do there. It was a great idea for the character designers to place the eyes in the windows of the cars. It did give them some life and help eliminate any creepiness that may have resulted from the constant view of the empty seats inside. Apart from those eyes, though, there wasn't a lot to pull me past a car and into a character.
Early in the story we go inside McQueen's "trailer." We see dozens of awards and statues lining the walls. Rather than be amazed or impressed, I was confused as to who, in this handless world, put those pieces there. Normally my suspension of disbelief will kick in and render questions like that obsolete but I was never deeply involved enough or emotionally invested in the story to any degree to allow for that suspension.
It's not as if the filmmakers didn't try. As in past films, Pixar has assembled a great cast of voice actors for the film. What is different here is that they also went with a bit of stunt casting, pulling in real world racers and orbiters of the racing world to lend their voices to some of the characters. Some work, such as Tom and Ray Magliozzi (of Car Talk fame) who seem to be having the time of their lives while others like Bob Costas or Richard Petty just seem to be there to be.
Of the main characters, Owen Wilson brings some energy to his laid back persona and the mix works to put an angle on what could have been a one dimensional character. Tony Shalhoub also stands out as the local tire salesman with a fondness for Formula One.
Overall I'm mixed on the film. It looked great but never engaged me on a level past the technical one. While Cars had some great film elements it also ran about 20 minutes too long. But even with its flaws the film still stands out for its technical prowess, its incredible detail and its Pixar-ness.
In racing terms, Cars is a movie in second gear. Pixar has built up enough good graces in the public eye that it is nearly certain this will be a major hit. I hope the next film will live up to those graces better, as this one left me underwhelmed.