Life in the fast lane can make a person cold, a fact that Hollywood — between mouthfuls of Cristal and destination childbirths in Namibia — is frequently fond of reminding us.
“Relish your simple, homebound lives,” the moral goes. “You wouldn’t want any part of this hell. Trust us.” Gulp, gulp.
Similar platitudes fail to supercharge “Cars,” the latest animated family feature from Disney and its longtime CGI protégé Pixar (“Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles”). Set in an all-automotive world seemingly dreamt up by a NASCAR publicist, the movie features plenty of wit, speed and grandstand flash, but seizes up for lack of compelling human interest. Americans love their cars, but they don’t love them this much.
Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) lends his brash, boyish drawl to the role of Lightning McQueen, a hotshot stock car (late-model Corvette, maybe?) accustomed to racing in front of thousands of honking, idling admirers. (In the cars-only universe imagined by director John Lasseter, fans do the “wave” by synchronously flashing their headlights.) Lasseter (“Toy Story”) and his animation team capably capture the modern stock car spectacle in all its bread-and-circus glory: Every camera flash, every corporate banner, an orgy of color and carbon monoxide.
With twin Miata groupies at his side and an overgrown sense of entitlement, McQueen is your typical selfish, career-obsessed antihero. (Think, if you can bear it, Bruce Willis in “The Kid.”) Unsatisfied with his Rust-eze corporate sponsor and its geriatric clientele, the arrogant coupe cares only about dominating the field and, hence, has few true friends.
Clearly, McQueen is spoiling for a life-altering breakthrough of some sort, but is that enough? Are we really supposed to care about this four-wheeled glory hog and his secret pain? It’s all just a little too worldly for a Pixar movie, and certainly not as emotionally gripping as the life-or-death parental gambits in “Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” (It feels a bit more like “Shark Tale,” or some other lesser, trendier product.)
On his way to the vaunted Piston Cup in California, McQueen runs afoul of the law in the remote desert hamlet of Radiator Springs, straddling the legendary Route 66. Slapped with several critical, career-imperiling days of community service by the crabby local judge (Paul Newman, as a Studebaker), the defiant McQueen gets chummy with the town’s colorful collection of yokels: A tow-truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, in full, bucktoothed glory), a VW hippie van (George Carlin), an early-model hombre with hydraulic lifts (Cheech Marin) and a community-minded Porsche named Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) who tries so very hard to see past McQueen’s spoiler to the generous, sensitive stock car underneath.
Lasseter, sharing script credit with three other screenwriters, steers McQueen’s inevitable moral dilemma in all the expected directions, tapping on the breaks — ever so briefly — for an overly earnest homage to quirky Route 66 desert towns made nonviable by the federally funded highway system. (And, yet, Barstow, Calif., still chugs along. Somehow.)
Race fans will prick up their ears for cameo dubbings by such legends as Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mario Andretti, but little — if any — inspiration was afforded the movie’s soundtrack. Lasseter even managed to snub Gary Numan’s synth-pop anthem “Cars” — a cliché, sure, but one that might have made this celebrity-obsessed pile of burning rubber less tiresome.
>> Rated PG (mild language), 116 minutes. Grade: C