Young and Fuelish

Grilles! Grilles! Grilles! Some of the colorful characters from the animated
Grilles! Grilles! Grilles! Some of the colorful characters from the animated "Cars" enjoy some off-road time. (Copyright Disney/Pixar)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

The new animated fable "Cars" is the story of a young fellow with what might be called auto-erratic tendencies. He pays too much attention to himself and must have his frame straightened, his oil changed, his wipers refurbished. Okay, so? He's a car.

The movie is set in a world so auto-normative that even the mountain ranges look like tail fins, the mesas have the lines of '40s fenders, and the hummocks are hood ornaments. Human beings? Never heard of 'em. It's the latest concoction from the geniuses at Pixar, probably the most inventive of the computer-generated imagery shops ("Toy Story" I and II and "A Bug's Life" were theirs), and the film's great fun, if well under the level of the first "Toy Story."

The story actually has resonances to the kind of old boxing tales they used to tell in the '30s. A champ who's really a chump gets an important lesson in humility, compassion and respect when waylaid in a small town; he comes back the better for his ordeal, and this time the chump becomes a champ.

Our hero, one Lightning McQueen, is some kind of sleek red sportster on a NASCAR-like circuit (why he has the body of a Ferrari but a Texas accent is never explained, nor does anyone bother to point out that all the other guys on the track are big, square Detroit grinders). There may be an echo of upstart Jeff Gordon in the story situation; Gordon came from nowhere in NASCAR, dominated with his talent but off-put with his arrogance for a number of years.

At any rate, Lightning (the voice behind the bumper is Owen Wilson's) thinks quite highly of himself, particularly when he ties for the Piston Cup, the movie's version of the Nextel Cup. A runoff between Lightning and his two opponents is set in California a week hence, even if Lightning's crew has abandoned him because of his selfish, hog-the-spotlight ways. Off he sets, in the belly of his one remaining friend, a big Peterbilt rig geared for auto transport.

Possibly the best few minutes of the film are director John Lasseter's evocation of the American landscape, or rather carscape, as the big red truck wends its way across the United States of Carmerica. The Pixar people have an extreme talent for conjuring imagery that is soaring in its majesty but also resonant -- it's a stylization but acute enough to carry emotional meaning. And boy, can these guys do a sky: If you've got a sentimental weakness for the hues that play across the cloud tufts as the big orb sinks behind the mountains, this is the movie for you.

But brash, impetuous Lightning pushes his buddy too hard and, in a weird accident, is spilled off the road. He comes to rest in a town passed by the superhighway, called "Radiator Springs." Pursued by a cop (in what I'd guess is a '48 Buick), he manages to tear up the main drag, is arrested, is sentenced to community service and spends a week towing an asphalter -- a great belching, smoking chunk of '30s industrio-mechanical ingenuity -- down the fractured drag, a mighty comedown for something that streamlined, red and cute.

But while he's there, he interacts with townspeople, falls in love, learns a little something and gets beaten in a car race by a salad dressing manufacturer.

Actually, his nemesis isn't Paul Newman, but Newman's tonsils bringing melancholy wisdom edged with regret to the role. Newman plays Doc Hudson, the town's elder, a fellow with a mysterious past who has forgotten more about most things than other people even know. He's the one with the life lessons for Lightning, and the most interesting personal history. (If you know your racing history, the name Hudson Hornet may ring a bell, as it recalls long-past golden days when the low-slung, high-powered speedster gave the big boys of Detroit all they could handle.)

Newman's is far and away the best vocal performance; it'll have Newman fans recalling his older, wiser Fast Eddie Felsen from "The Color of Money," Martin Scorsese's sequel to "The Hustler." Wilson is really too wispy to be there, and Bonnie Hunt, as a romantically inclined Porsche Carrera, barely registers. Larry the Cable Guy is strong as a down-home tow truck. I think it's the voices and the lack of human figures and movement that leave "Cars" less empathetic an experience than "Toy Story," with its star turns by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

On the other hand, Radiator Springs, as a movie illusion, is itself a fascinating confabulation. The Pixar folks have a gift for giving their car-characters emotional appeal by virtue of extremely expressive eyes set in the windshield. At the same time, the things remain automotive: Their skin glistens in the light, differently by sun than by neon, their tires bite the earth, they sway on their shocks, they fishtail or scoot like the real thing.

All of this takes place in a charmingly evoked town that once embraced the care and feeding of Automobilicus americanus but then lost out, when the interstate took the traffic around, rather than through. The town is mythically sited on the Mother Road, that famous band of coast-to-coast concrete ribbon that inspired the great Nat King Cole.

In fact, "Cars" proves you can still get some kicks on Route 66.

Cars (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company