Cars, an animated feature-length film from Pixar, is a sweetly entertaining, sentimental journey back to Historic Route 66. Framed as a Nascar fan’s fantasy of an off-track road trip, Cars finds hot-shot Lightning McQueen (Car 95, voice by Owen Wilson) waylaid by his outsized celebrity ego and reckless driving, on a cross-country drive to California. Incarcerated in Radiator Springs for ripping up the pavement of the one-horse desert town, and riling up the humble pride of the townsfolk, Lightning finds himself trapped, but good.
Lightning is sentenced is to do good works by repairing the tarmac he ripped up. He schemes repeatedly to escape justice and the ire of the townsfolk, driven by the worry that every day in Radiator Spring means losing ground to the competition. He is currently in a three-way tie with long-time champion Car 43 (a Cutlass, voice by Bob Costas) and Car 86 (a Corvette, voice by Michael Keaton). All three are to rendezvous in California for the runoff race. However, McQueen is about to learn to stop and enjoy getting his kicks on Route 66.
Most of the plot involves city slicker McQueen slowing down long enough to be charmed, seduced, and baileywicked by a small town full of highly colorful characters. Country hick / rusty tow truck Mater (voice by Larry the Cable Guy) is the indefatigable shaggy dog who makes McQueen his best friend. (That’s "Mater" as in "Tomater," except without the "Tow."). High-pressure LA lawyer-escaped to desert country / sexy Porsche Sally (voice by Bonnie Hunt) flirts a la Moonlighting’s Cybill Shepherd with Bruce Willis. Cars slides and swerves and spins with high precision through a long cast of car-icatures, cleverly blending cars’ design personalities with character roles from familiar films and TV show. It mixes in a fast-paced sound track (pop tunes from across the decades and music genres to match the cars’ ages and personalities) with lots of old-fashioned homespun American virtues and has the audience rolling along. Think It’s a Wonderful Life, as interpreted by Detroit’s finest and packaged in traditional Disney values.
The townsfolk’s quest to tame bucking bronco McQueen and force him to help bring success back to the decrepit town (which looks very much like any of many forgotten near-ghost towns along Route 66 today) plays as a populist "take back the power from corporate interests." Cars sends an expected usual mixed message — down with today’s Big Business by returning to rose-colored version of yesteryear’s Big Business — while promoting multicultural "family values." Whether embraced as a pitch to see the USA this summer (and buy plenty of Route 66 nostalgia kitsch), a non-stop, all-action, cgi-stylized special-effects video game entertainment, or an American parable, Cars is richly silly, but also solid, with something for the kids and the adults. As a tribute to the idea of Route 66 it could even end up a pop cult classic.