Life in the Fast Lane

From a teeming nascar speed-way to a dilapidated Southwestern town on the old Route 66, "Cars" fills the screen with super realistic computer animation so fanatically detailed, so packed with shiny goodies that it could have been made only by the folks at Pixar. Visually, each of their movies, from "Toy Story" to "Finding Nemo," has redefined state-of-the-art CGI, and "Cars" is as eye-popping as anything Pixar has done. But "Cars" inspires more admiration than elation. It dazzles even as it disappoints. This time around, John Lasseter and his co director, the late Joe Ranft, seem more interested in dispensing Life Lessons than showing us a roaring good time.

Lasseter's biggest risk is making a movie in which no human or animal forms intrude. All the main characters are cars, and frankly, it takes a while to see the souls hidden under the metallic hoods. Our antihero is the rookie racing-car sensation Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a go-it-alone, look-out-for-number-one showboat with an agent in Hollywood (who else but Jeremy Piven) and dreams of big-bucks corporate sponsorship. En route to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all showdown, Lightning gets waylaid in the dusty town of Radiator Springs, where the local judge, a crusty old Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman), sentences him to repave a ruined road. Stuck in the town that time forgot--though the screenwriters have clearly not forgotten "Doc Hollywood"-- the selfish racing car must put on the brakes, smell the roses and discover that there is more to life than winning.

In spite of the narrative déjà vu, there are delightful compensations: the rusty tow truck, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who becomes Lightning's most loyal friend; the perky Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a former fast-lane L.A. lawyer who's resettled in Radiator Springs and captures Lightning's hitherto unlocatable heart, and George Carlin's conspiracy-minded '60s relic (a flower-painted VW bus, of course) who sells organic fuel.

"Cars" is nothing if not heartfelt. In this nostalgic paean to small towns, the villain is the high-tech interstate that put a wedge between us and nature. The irony is that this elegy for the antique comes from the computerized company that has relegated hand-drawn animation to the dustbin. If anyone knows that the old ways are not always the best, it's the folks who have boldly taken animation into the 21st century.