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Middle of the Road.

First, a disclaimer: While I’m always up for a road trip, for whatever reason — and despite growing up next to the Darlington 500 — I never really acquired an appreciation for NASCAR, or for car culture in general. Still, I’d say the review consensus on Cars, Disney and Pixar’s recent foray into CGI entertainment for the red states, is basically on the money: While not nearly a classic on the order of the Toy Stories or The Incredibles, this visual marvel does make for an enjoyable summer jaunt, even if it feels more than a bit by-the-numbers for most of its run. The movie hits all its beats (albeit somewhat languidly) and kids, particularly those of the Hot Wheels persuasion, are sure to love it — John Lassiter & co. don’t drop the ball here by any means. Still, one can’t help but get the lingering sense from Cars that the tank on Pixar’s incredible creative ride may be in need of a fill-up.

In terms of story, Cars is basically Days of Thunder meets Doc Hollywood: On his way cross-country to the most important race of the year, Lightning McQueen, a hotshot young rookie racer on the Piston Cup circuit (Owen Wilson, whose trademark whine starts to grate after awhile), makes an inadvertent pit-stop in Radiator Springs, a sleepy little town languishing on a forgotten stretch of the Mother Road, Route 66. Impounded for reckless driving and forced into community service by the gruff town elder, a Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman), McQueen finds himself having to spend crucial race-prep days repaving the village thoroughfare. But, fret not — as it turns out, the self-absorbed, vainglorious McQueen may just learn a thing or two about life and the true spirit of racing from the locals, which include, among others, a redneck tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), a Ferrari-loving Fiat (Tony Shalhoub), a hippie VW bus (George Carlin) and, if you’re into that sort of thing, an alluring Porsche lawyer (Bonnie Hunt). All well and good, but can McQueen still make the big race in time, defeat his mustachi-grilled nemesis (Michael Keaton), and win the glory and sponsorship he’s been so desperately seeking?

Take a guess. Still, one shouldn’t fault Cars for being somewhat pat — it is, after all, a kid’s movie, and, as the film points out, the journey should matter more than the destination anyway. That being said, despite its hyperkinetic opening and for all its many breathtaking visual flourishes (note particularly both the wide-angle western landscapes and the eye-popping neon of Radiator Springs at night), Cars definitely bogs down for most of the middle laps, amid several interminably long stretches of rote character development. (By the way, as the mind wanders while these animated cars talk to each other in been-there, done-that platitudes, it occasionally becomes hard not to see them instead as weird immersion tanks for floating eyeballs — you’ll see what I mean.) To be fair, by the standards of most animated films, Cars is still in a class above the rest. But, given that this is Pixar we’re talking about, it’s hard not to expect a little more ingenuity throughout. (Also, while it may be ludicrous to discuss issues of political economy here, Cars wants it both ways: Apparently small-town folk are more wise and virtuous than their city-car contemporaries, but Radiator Springs’ major beef is that they’re no longer a big city. Ah well…I guess The Incredibles had similar problems.)

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