The makers of Doc Hollywood called. They want their movie back.
Cars rolls along like an animated, automotive version of that 1991 Michael J. Fox gem, from its basic plot points to its feel-good conclusion.
Stop us if you think you've heard this one before: A young hotshot on his way to Los Angeles causes a crash and gets stuck in a small town. Before he can leave, he must spend several days doing community service, only to find out that he likes the simple life there and that he's learned more about family and friendship than he'd ever imagined.
The main difference in Cars is that the characters are ... well, they're cars, hence the title. Owen Wilson takes the Fox role as a stud rookie race car who gets trapped in the forgotten town of Radiator Springs along Route 66 - though it's hard to imagine the inspiration in casting an actor as laid-back as Mr. Wilson to voice a character named Lightning McQueen. Vince Vaughn maybe, or Ben Stiller. Even Ben Stein would have sounded speedier.
What also sets Cars apart is that it's a Pixar production, under the direction of John Lasseter, who brought you the Toy Story movies and A Bug's Life. As an executive producer, Mr. Lasseter also helped shepherd Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, some of the most entertaining and emotionally rich films to come along in an era when animated pictures too often feel like an arrogant amalgamation of pop-culture references.
It's certainly a beautiful film, just like its Pixar predecessors. The animators keep getting better at creating backgrounds and details that look so realistic, you often forget you're watching a computer-generated cartoon and feel as though you're looking at filmed footage. The reflection of neon light on a car's hood, the splash of water or rustle of leaves on the road, the hazy glow from lamps hanging over the highway - all tangibly, stunningly rendered.
The makers of Cars clearly didn't skimp on the vocal talent, either. Besides Mr. Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, George Carlin and John Ratzenberger are among the all-star cast, alongside racing legends Mario Andretti, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty. Jeremy Piven also shows up as the voice of Lightning's fast-talking agent.
All of which makes it even more baffling that it took six screenwriters to think of things for these eclectic, enormously talented people to say.
Kids will find the film fast and colorful (if they can sit still for its two-hour running time). Adults might find it quite facile, especially during a draggy stretch in which James Taylor sings a song - one that's surprisingly clunky, considering Randy Newman wrote it - which explains how tiny towns along Route 66 dried up once the interstate came plowing through the Southwest. It's as though Mr. Lasseter yanked the emergency brake.
Ms. Hunt plays a Porsche named Sally, who used to be a high-powered lawyer but left L.A., she says, because, "I never felt ... happy." Mr. Newman plays a crotchety old judge with a secret to hide. More offensive than that are the stereotypes the supporting cast supplies: Mr. Carlin as a hippie Volkswagen bus who makes organic fuel; Cheech Marin as a low-rider named Ramone who offers elaborate paint jobs. Larry the Cable Guy provides the voice of a dimwitted redneck tow truck - but his character is responsible for one of the funniest scenes in the film, when he takes Lightning out tractor-tipping, similar to cow-tipping.
What has in the past made these Pixar movies stronger and more enduring than, say, Shark Tale or Hoodwinked or Madagascar is that they are of our world without obnoxiously parodying the details of our daily lives. A big race at the beginning of Cars is more thrilling than NASCAR - with even more inventive camera angles - but it doesn't trot out gratuitous references to American Idol or the Black Eyed Peas, for example.
Instead, it just rips off Doc Hollywood, almost note for note.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 114 minutes
The verdict: * * out of * * * *