I can confidently say that there is at least one level on which Cars does not disappoint: you'll be hard-pressed to find a more visually gorgeous film playing anywhere this summer (unless your local rep house is screening The New World), even if you (like this humble reviewer) couldn't give two shifts about the aesthetics of the automobile in general. In choosing cars as their subject, Pixar's animators hit on the perfect protagonists with which to show off the best their Macs can do: their surfaces are glossy, meaning we're treated to hundreds of beautifully complex reflections sliding over their bumpers and hoods; they can drive through the most remarkable scenic vistas the United States of CGI have to offer; and they're fast, meaning they can really chew up the processor cycles and show us how many moving pieces they can throw at us at once. And in certain scenes, these three tech-geeky elements do fuse together to create the kind of jaw-dropping visual majesty that previous Pixar highlights Finding Nemo and The Incredibles dripped from every frame. But it bears noting that this is Pixar's seventh big release, and when it comes to the script and the story, the formula is wearing thin and balding.
It's not uncommon for the studio's films to credit many writers, but this is the first of their releases to feel like it was written by committee: it's lacking the same wit, crackle, and vision that were the true animating forces of the company's previous efforts. There are more stock characters in this film than in a bowl of chicken soup, and just about all of them simply sit there on screen, failing to engage despite clever character designs and generally strong voice-acting (be sure to stick around through the credits for an homage to Pixar standby John "Cheers" Ratzenberger, who never fails to nail the supporting characters he's always given; it might be time for him to graduate to a lead, in fact) -- and the disappointingly predictable storyline doesn't give them many opportunities to come alive, either. And there's simply no forgiving the egregious mid-film musical number, five minutes of unrepentant message-carrying schlock that actually felt like a parody of heartstring-jerking balladry until I realized, soberingly, that they were dead serious. Sure, there are a few clever gags, and once again the level of graphic design and wizardry on display is honestly awe-inspiring. But the film overall just doesn't stick -- and the lackluster trailer for the studio's next film, Ratatouille, sets off the mildest of warning bells for next summer as well, even with Brad Bird in the director's seat. (Now would be the point in the review at which I would say "Pixar is running out of gas" if I was a lesser reviewer; but I suppose that just mentioning that corny line drags me down to that level, doesn't it?)
Don't get me wrong, you can certainly take the kids to this one without wanting to open your wrists (well, except during the trailer reel -- the world really needs another Santa Clause film, don'chaknow?). But if you're hoping for another movie that transcends the tired cliches of children's film and crosses over into the rarefied air of The Damn Good Movies, then I'm afraid you'd better readjust your priorities, fast.