From the beginning, Pixar Animation has set an almost unmatchably high standard for CGI features. Problem is, that standard has been so consistently maintained that at this point, anything short of perfection is a disappointment. Pixar's movies—the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and most recently, The Incredibles—have consistently been lively, intelligent charmers. And they've raised the bar on computer animation by creating new ways of dealing with subtle, complex textures, from the wood grain on a hobby horse to the individual strands of hair in a monster's fluffy blue pelt. Pixar's latest, Cars, holds up the technical standard admirably—it's almost possible to see the imbedded man-hours tick by onscreen as a crowd of anthropomorphic cars slowly cruise through a neon-lit nighttime street, in an orgy of glimmering, lovingly shaped reflections and refractions. But for all the surface gloss, the story feels slightly hollow; too many romantic comedies and overly sincere dramas have run this same course.
Owen Wilson voices a hotshot racecar bent on becoming the first rookie to win the coveted Piston Cup. When a contentious race ends in a tie, Wilson and his chief rivals—a loudmouthed, arrogant also-ran (Michael Keaton) and a good-natured veteran (NASCAR champ Richard Petty)—are scheduled for a runoff match. But an accident strands Wilson in a dried-up, tiny southwestern burg, where he initially dismisses the locals as tiresome hicks. Which they kind of are, but they also have some much-needed perspective. In particular, a dopey tow truck (Larry The Cable Guy), a bossy but sincere Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), and a grizzled old Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman) teach Wilson to slow down and smell the—well, whatever a car would want to smell while enjoying a little leisure in life.
It's hard to miss the direct similarities between Cars and Doc Hollywood, though Cars owes nearly as much to every other film about a city slicker who gets a taste of country living and winds up reluctant to return to the hustle and bustle. Cars is a fine example of the formula, with pleasant chemistry, the patented Pixar cleverness, and the usual sweetly melancholy nostalgia courtesy of songwriter Randy Newman. But it's still a formula film, just as stuck in its familiar, repetitive track as its beautifully rendered vehicles. For any other studio, Cars would qualify as good enough. But by previous Pixar standards, it's a weak sort of win.