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"CARS"
(2006) (voices of Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt) (G)

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QUICK TAKE:
Animated Comedy: A self-centered, hotshot racecar finds his outlook on life changed when he ends up having to spend time in a small town paying retribution for the damage he created on his way to a big race in Los Angeles.
PLOT:
Lightning McQueen (voice of OWEN WILSON) is a self-centered, rookie racecar who's about the hottest thing on the racing circuit. Battling longtime Piston Cup champion Strip "The King" Weathers (voice of RICHARD PETTY) and perpetual second place finisher Chick Hicks (voice of MICHAEL KEATON), Lightning ends up in a three-way tie with them.

That necessitates a race-off the following week in Los Angeles, but since Lightning is so self-centered, the only member left of his pit crew is Mack (voice of JOHN RATZENBERGER), his transport truck. The two then set off on their cross-country trek, but the long hours and darkness of night results in them being separated after both doze off.

While racing around in a panic trying to find Mack, Lightning ends up fleeing from the local Sheriff (voice of MICHAEL WALLIS) of Radiator Springs, resulting in a lot of damage to the main highway through the once vibrant town. As a result, the hotshot is locked away in the impound lot overnight.

When he realizes the young troublemaker is a racecar, local mechanic/judge Doc Hudson (voice of PAUL NEWMAN) throws out the case, but public defender Sally (voice of BONNIE HUNT) -- despite supposedly working for him -- thinks that Lightning should serve some public time fixing the damages and possibly infusing some outside interest in their town due to his fame.

With his gasoline supply limited to keep him from running away, Lightning reluctantly starts to work on the repairs, all while the locals watch. They include old tow truck Mater (voice of LARRY THE CABLE GUY) who befriends the sullen racecar, as well as hippie VW Bus Fillmore (voice of GEORGE CARLIN) and military jeep Sarge (voice of PAUL DOOLEY).

Old car Lizzie (voice of KATHERINE HELMOND) doesn't seem to know what's going on, while store owners Flo (voice of JENIFER LEWIS), Ramone (voice of CHEECH MARIN) and tire shop proprietor Luigi (voice of TONY SHALHOUB) and his faithful assistant Guido (voice of GUIDO QUARONI) long for any sort of business to come their way.

With time running out before his upcoming big race-off, Lightning can't wait to get out of the small town and back to his famous life. But as the days wear on and he starts to get to know the locals -- especially Sally and Doc Hudson -- Lightning begins to have a new outlook on life as he learns a thing or two about both himself and them.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Going back to their original computer generated shorts (which look simple now but were technological breakthroughs at the time) and then through more recent fare such as the "Toy Story" films, "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," I've always been a huge fan of the offerings -- short and feature length -- from the folks at Pixar.

Part of that stems from their ability to take familiar stories and make them feel unique, creating their own little universe where toys are alive, monsters in the closet are funny blue collar guys, and superheroes have domestic issues and midlife crises.

Of course, the rampant imagination and clever ways of spinning the story and adding fine details hasn't hurt either, which also holds true for the emotional touches that make the comedy even that much more engaging. Then there are the special effects that -- not surprisingly -- just keep getting better with each subsequent offering.

All of which brings us to their latest release, "Cars," a NASCAR branded comedy about a self-centered hotshot stock car learning a life lesson or two after spending time with some local yokels who haven't always been local and somewhat or altogether defy the dimwitted, small town stereotypes.

Having seen the previews and witnessed the amazing visuals, I was expecting another home run from the studio. Granted, some of their releases have been of the in the park rather than grand slam variety, but all have been thoroughly enjoyable, engaging and -- despite their story trappings -- always come off feeling fresh.

Alas, my initial reaction while watching the film and then immediately thereafter was less glowing than for any of their recent releases. Yes, the visuals are splendid, particularly the overall look in terms of panoramic vistas, NASCAR races, and all of the fine details. As in their other films, it's so good that you forget you're watching something that's not real (even if the vehicles themselves are given somewhat more of a cartoonish appearance as compared to their surroundings).

But the biggest problem is that the story is just a rehashed, computer-animated version of "Doc Hollywood." Granted, that big britches fish out of backwoods water comedy -- starring Michael J. Fox -- wasn't exactly original itself. Yet, all I could think about while watching this film unfold was all of the many similarities and parallels between the two.

For instance, Owen Wilson (an odd choice for the lead character what with his laidback, surfer dude voice that obviously clashes with an uppity, speed demon persona) plays the lead character, a self-centered, egotistical young hotshot who's on his way to California. He ends up causing some property damage in a small town, has to spend several days there paying retribution for the damages, and falls for the pretty woman -- voiced by Bonnie Hunt -- who's already experienced big city life.

Along the way, he must deal with the various colorful locals, including the cranky "Doc" -- Paul Newman in fine vocal form -- who sees him as nothing but a valueless whipper-snapper. And despite wanting to get off to La-La Land, he ends up coming to respect and like the locals.

In "Doc Hollywood," Fox plays a hotshot surgeon headed for L.A. when a detour sends him crashing through some property and damaging his car. He then must spend several days there paying retribution, falls for the pretty ambulance driver, must deal with a cranky doc and interacts with the colorful locals, resulting in him respecting and liking them, their ways and the town.

Okay, Hollywood's been in a creative drought of recent and has been raiding the film vaults for material and/or inspiration for years, but when even the character arcs are pretty much the same for the major players (heck, you could probably edit the two films together and not interrupt the thematic or storyline flow), that's a bit much. Accordingly, writer/director John Lasseter and co-writers Dan Fogelman, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray & Phil Lorin and Jorgen Klubien should get the equivalent of a computer generated ruler across their knuckles for copying off the other guy's work.

That's especially true for Lasseter who even borrows from his own film in creating a musical montage about the demise of old highway routes (such as the famous 66 one) and small towns along them in the aftermath of the Interstate system. It's a bit of fuzzy, tug at the heart nostalgia for older baby boomers (younger viewers likely won't get it) that plays with a melancholy song penned by Randy Newman, who just so happened to have done the same (and sang it too) back in "Toy Story 2" about old toys being forgotten.

Even without all of that, the film is about as predictable as they come, especially for adults and even if they never saw the previous Fox flick. And at nearly two hours, it might even tax the younger ones' viewing patience, although the vibrantly rendered colors and "zaniness" might keep them otherwise occupied and distracted from the far too obvious ethnic stereotypes enveloping the supporting characters (such as Cheech Marin voicing the low-rider, Latino car, among others).

Finally, while there all chuckles to be had for all -- particularly for NASCAR and car fans in general (such as Richard Petty voicing a character, Darrell Waltrip and Bob Costas serving as TV race commentators, Ray Magliozzi and Tom Magliozzi appearing in cameo form, etc.) -- it doesn't have as much laugh out loud material as its predecessors or even the far funnier and zanier "Over the Hedge" of recent (although Larry the Cable Guy mostly redeems himself for his awful live action film with his vocal work here as a good ol' boy tow truck).

Yet, despite all of that, the film has grown on me a bit over the intervening weeks since I saw it. I don't know if that's a delayed reaction, some forgiveness for its cinematic sins if you will, being entranced by the visuals, or simply being affected by the goodwill created by Pixar's previous efforts rubbing off on this one (or some combination of the above).

Whatever the case, while it's clearly far from their best, let alone original work, there's enough here to earn a recommendation. And make sure you stick around for the end credits where the film's best and funniest material exists (in regards to spoofing Pixar's previous films as re-imagined starring cars, as well as a cute tribute of sorts to longtime vocal performer John Ratzenberger). Sporting a shiny veneer but suffering some misfires along the route, "Cars" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed May 19, 2006 / Posted June 9, 2006


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