Bringing to life a world populated by living, talking automobiles, Pixar's Cars is the most delightful piece of entertainment to come out of Hollywood so far this year. It's the first feature co-written and co-directed by Pixar Animation's John Lasseter since the two Toy Storys in the late nineties and it's every bit as funny, involving and visually stunning as those films were. Like all Pixar's features, it's as much a treat for adults as it is for children.
Stock car Lightning McQueen (voiced by a perfectly cast Owen Wilson) is a rising star on the racing circuit and a cocky, self-infatuated celebrity who's alienated his friends and his pit crew. Finishing joint first in the crucial, final race of the season, he's forced to enter a tie-breaker with two rivals, including an even more arrogant racer called Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton, on form).
On the cross-country trip to California for the race, Lightning is mislaid when he rolls out the back of his drowsy truck, Mack (the always welcome John Ratzenberger - whatever you do, don't miss his in-joke during the end credits). Trying to catch up with Mack and then outrun a cop who's caught him speeding, Lightning inadvertantly wrecks havoc in the small town of Radiator Springs. He's impounded and ordered by the crusty town judge (Paul Newman, giving a performance of surprising gravity) to fix the mess he's made.
At first desperate to leave, Lightning slowly, grudgingly lowers his defences and makes friends with the locals, like the sexy Porsche, Sally Carrera (the under-rated Bonnie Hunt) and an amiably dumb tow truck called Mater (Larry the Cable Guy - this is actually his name?). There are other memorable characters played by Cheech Marin, George Carlin and Tony Shalhoub. Together they show the sceptical outsider that Radiator Springs may be a hick desert town in the middle of nowhere but it has unique charms of its own.
John Lasseter's world of cars is wonderfully and often hilariously realised. The parallels to our own world are sometimes clever, like the clueless suburban SUVs. Sometimes they're satirical - a certain Californian politician is represented by an Austrian-accented Humvee. More often than not, they're just delightfully silly. The killer gag must be the tractors, which are.... no, it would be a crime to spoil that one for you.
As with all Pixar's creations, the cars are a joy to look at. The world they inhabit is mind-bogglingly beautiful. I've never seen a computer-animated film that looked this ravishing. There are landscapes in Cars that are enough to make you sigh. Perhaps it's time the Oscars invented an animation equivalent of Best Cinematography.
All this would just be side dressing if the story didn't work and it does, wonderfully, which is a little amazing considering how corny it is. Cars resurrects the ancient cliche of the selfish city slicker redeemed by his encounters with decent small town folk - more than one critic has pointed out that it's Doc Hollywood on wheels. The movie could easily have slipped into tired formula or indigestible mawkishness yet it doesn't because Lasseter and his co-director and co-writer Joe Ranft are sincere about their values, because their love of the automobile and their nostalgia for 1950s Americana are so obviously genuine and because they're smart enough to subvert the sentiment with wit and mischief.
I have only one real gripe about Cars and that's Buena Vista's decision to re-voice one of the characters for British audiences, inserting Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson into the film, presumably because he's associated with cars. This isn't the first time a UK distributor has added a British celebrity to a computer-animated blockbuster - Shrek 2, Shark Tale and Robots have all been affected - but it's a first for a Pixar movie and it's also the first time a fairly important character has been dubbed. The character is Lightning's agent, Harv and the original voice was Jeremy Piven, a gifted actor and comedian who stole Two For The Money from Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. I don't have any beef with Jeremy Clarkson, in fact I rather like his two-fingers-up attitude, but he isn't an actor or a comedian and, with his English accent, he's glaringly miscast as a slick LA agent, a role perfect for Piven.
This re-dubbing is vandalism, it serves no discernible purpose (is anyone more likely to see Cars, knowing Clarkson is in it?) and it has to stop. I'm not going to take any stars off my review but I am going to encourage you to boycott the British DVD when it's released and buy the American version. Don't accept this.
Note: Cars is playing with a four-minute Pixar short film called One Man Band, about a pair of rival street musicians. It's uproariously funny and a perfect appetite-whetter for the main feature.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:49:27