Hopping into the director’s seat for the first time since 1999’s Toy Story 2, John Lasseter commemorates Pixar’s 20th anniversary with a zippy comedy-adventure of animated car characters. While the animation puts Dreamscape (Shrek, Over the Hedge) and Blue Sky (Ice Age, Robots) to shame, it never achieves the emotional heights of Pixar’s earlier efforts.

Narcissistic stock car rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is the hottest competitor on the racing circuit. Hoping to land the juiciest contract, he travels to the Piston Cup Championship. But en route, Lightning gets unexpectedly waylaid in the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Over time, sexy sports car Sally (Bonnie Hunt), rusty tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a 1951 Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman) help turn self-absorbed, materialistic Lightning into a role model for teamwork and fair play.

Technically, the animators have delivered some awe-inspiring work, a true visual masterpiece. The car designs are a bit cutesy and inexpressive but the panoramic settings and detailed backgrounds are breathtaking. There’s a photo-realistic precision to the whole movie, and Pixar’s ability to establish lifelike environments represents a high-water mark in computer-generated animation. As the race cars jockey for position at breakneck speeds, you’ll find yourself forgetting they’re animated characters.

Pixar also has a gift for finding just the right voices for its characters. Cheech Marin, George Carlin and John Ratzenberger supply hilariously well-drawn supporting players. Even Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, on NPR’s Car Talk) are cleverly put to use as Lightning’s sponsors, Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze. Surprisingly, Larry the Cable Guy offers up more than his typical brain-dead redneck shtick, turning Mater into a memorably heartfelt and funny character.

The only performance, oddly enough, that doesn’t quite gel is Owen Wilson’s. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the actor’s voice work; he just never rises above his typical aw-gee-shucks dude persona. Unlike Ellen Degeneres’ brilliant turn in Finding Nemo, Wilson never finds a unique character, instead just playing himself.

But Cars stalls where other Pixar films have succeeded, and not just because a hunk of anthropomorphized Detroit steel doesn’t have the same appeal as a toy cowboy or fuzzy monster. The movie never develops any stakes for Lightning, and except for the opening and closing races, there isn’t an antagonist in sight (a Pixar first). Though Cars espouses the virtues of quaint living, teamwork and altruism, it’s hard to give a damn about any of the characters. Still, there’s little doubt the NASCAR set will adore the portrayal of contemporary urbanism as a cutthroat world of corruption and consumerism, and rural living as a sanctuary of decency.

In the end, however, all that matters is whether there’s enough action and charm to keep the kiddies starry-eyed and Target selling lots and lots of Cars merchandise — and any trip down the toy aisle will prove that Pixar hasn’t lost its touch.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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