Almost every major sport has a companion film, the one movie fans routinely point to as the definitive representation of their beloved competitive activity. Basketball has Hoosiers. Baseball divides camps between The Natural and Bull Durham. Hockey (Slap Shot) and soccer (Victory) are covered, while football actually has too many to mention.
But prior to 2006, NASCAR was without a representative - and don't even think about suggesting Tony Scott's dreadful Days of Thunder. Racing legend Richard Petty put that crazed notion to rest when he recently told a crowd of entertainment journalists, "The only thing that Days of Thunder had to do with racing was that they had numbers on the side of the car."
Well, gearheads, wait no longer. With Cars, the whiz kids at Pixar Animation Studios present the seminal NASCAR flick, conjuring the finest representation of race-day excitement ever captured on film. Sleek, sponsor-tagged stock cars tear around concrete bowls in hopes of winning the famed Piston Cup. Fellow vehicles cheer from the grandstands; campers chug fluids and huddle close in the infield.
Pixar has always thrived on minute details, so pinpoint accuracy should come as no surprise. When packed-together racers speed past the camera's banked position - odd, since animators don't actually rely on cameras - we see bits of gravel bounce along in their wake. Cars even puts us in the driver's seat for a bone-rattling wreck, something Fox and NBC have yet to perfect with their weekly NASCAR broadcasts.
Cars director John Lasseter took audiences to infinity and beyond with his Toy Story adventures. Here he breaks down crucial aspects of track life to manufacture brilliantly invigorating race experiences at both ends of his new feature. But off the tracks, where Cars spends the bulk of its time, the movie tends to slow down and cruise a well-worn path blazed by traditional animated stories, where self-centered characters learn valuable life lessons once they're shaken from their routine.
In this case, we get hot-shot Piston Cup rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), an egomaniacal race car who desperately needs to learn the value of teamwork. After tying Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and The King (Petty) in the Piston Cup Championship, McQueen must motor to California for a season-deciding tiebreaker race.
En route to reaching his physical and metaphorical destination, McQueen is waylaid in dusty Radiator Springs, a quiet blip along Route 66 that has been bypassed by the mighty interstate. And in keeping with Hollywood's misinformed notion of flyover towns, Radiator Springs is populated by simple yet decent cars eager to impart wisdom on our shallow hero. There's love interest Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the Porsche who traded her day job in L.A. to run a predominantly vacant motel. Mater the tow truck (Larry The Cable Guy) takes an instant shine to McQueen; the polar opposites bond over late-night tractor tipping. Finally, there's crusty town cynic Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), who knows McQueen's type and wants him to hit the road as soon as possible.
Cars continues Pixar's pristine track record for delivering exquisite animation. Lasseter infuses the film with a strong sense of place, nailing the head-swiveling hoopla of the speedway and the unhurried non-events of an abandoned ghost town. The creative team earns the right to show off a tad: They rev the proverbial animation engine when Sally takes McQueen for a glide through the southwestern deserts, a trip that promises natural beauty around every turn in the road.
The moral of the story is clear from the get-go: In life, we learn by living. McQueen may obsess on his destination, but Cars revels in the road trip. A commendable takeaway message, sure, but also one that's overly preached, even to newcomer kids absorbing their second or third Pixar outing. There's no denying the simple story - touched by no less then five credited screenwriters - is bursting with heart. For the first time in Pixar's young history, though, the meaningful lessons of the plot take a back seat to the filmmaker's breathtaking art.
Now bring me some chili fres.