A tangle of race cars swirls around a vast track, moving so fast they're just a flash of color and dust. We watch the race, and then we're shown the stands — they, too, are full of cars, thousands of them, each a dot of quivering color like an enormous rack of M&Ms. This is the world of "Cars," the newest feature from Pixar Animation Studios, and it's a delight.
In the clattering, ever-changing world of movie franchises, it's nice to know that the Pixar mark of quality remains constant. The gang of wizards behind "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Toy Story" and the rest understands how to craft stories that appeal to all ages, and how to bring them to life with perfectly rendered animation.
While "Cars" falls just a bit short of the company's most sublime efforts — its laid-back storytelling, befitting its nostalgic theme, perhaps is a tad too leisurely in a few places — the film is a sweet, funny tale of friendship and loyalty, which I enjoyed even more on a second viewing. The 7-year-old with me loved it. Down our row, a much smaller child leaned toward the screen with a rapt expression, as if wanting to enter its world.
At its heart, the tale of "Cars" is familiar: A central character discovers that he's lonely and, in the course of a journey, learns about the importance of friendship. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a snappy rookie race car determined to make it big. On his way to California for a big race, some wrong turns land him in Radiator Springs, a quiet town off Route 66 that got left behind when the interstate came through.
There, he meets a motley assortment of locals, among them Doc (Paul Newman), an elegant 1951 Hudson Hornet with a secret; Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a pretty and pert-voiced Porsche; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a dimwitted tow truck with a gift for friendship; Fillmore (George Carlin), a flower-decaled VW bus with a taste for organic fuel; and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), a tire-store owner obsessed with Ferraris. After soaking up the quiet, appealing pace of their lives, Lightning becomes part of it; as in so many Disney films, he finds a family.
Though the central idea of nostalgia for a quieter, small-town life may well be lost on this movie's young audience (there were signs of restlessness in the theater during the ballad "Our Town," sung by James Taylor), "Cars" finds a pleasant and often sparkling groove. Each car looks unique (though all have eyes on their windshield rather than the expected headlights), with precise character details: Doc's silver grille looks like a dapper mustache; Mater, when he sleeps, drools oil. All the colors look slightly faded in the Southwestern sun, and some of the scenes (such as a gorgeous drive through a tree-lined canyon) have the idyllic beauty of a vacation postcard.
And the film is full of trademark Pixar touches of humor (my favorite: a hilarious cameo from National Public Radio's "Car Talk" guys). Tiny flies buzz around the street lights in Radiator Springs; look closely and you'll see that they have little wheels, too.
"I fell in love," confides Sally to Lightning, explaining why she relocated to the small town. "Oh," he purrs, ultra-knowingly. "A Corvette?"
"Cars" gives us a richly detailed, imaginative world, which turns out, charmingly, to look a lot like our own.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org