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With an astounding winning streak uninterrupted from their revolutionary 1995 debut Toy Story through 2004's Incredibles, Pixar Animation Studios were due a hiccup. While 2006's hit Cars is just as technically adroit and visually stunning as the studio's six previous features, it's not nearly as solid in the areas that distinguished its predecessors from other computer-animated films: story and character. Set in a world occupied by anthropomorphized vehicles, Cars tells the tale of cocky rookie race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a selfish up-and-comer desperate for a premier endorsement. However, while en route to a career-making race, Lightning is arrested for recklessly tearing up the desolate town of Radiator Springs and is forced into labor to pay for the damage. Once he resigns himself to his punishment, the good old cars of Radiator Springs begin to puncture Lightning's shallow veneer of self-importance, and Lightning not only grows to love the natural beauty of the dying Route 66 tourist spot, but he also learns some valuable racing tricks from an old-time has-been with a crusty heart of chrome (Paul Newman). Director John Lasseter (who co-directed with Joe Ranft, and co-wrote with Ranft and eight others) describes Cars as a very personal project inspired by his childhood love of cars, and the movie is full of cute references and automotive in-jokes, but the screenplay fails to relay any substantial inspiration. The theme of old-discarded-for-new is a sentiment recycled from the far superior Toy Story franchise, only this time recast with a few familiar sports clichés. The film's major pothole, however, is that Lightning is a poor protagonist, cut from the tired Tom Cruise archetype of brash hot shots who reluctantly learn to care for others, and the film's animators fail to make their mechanical subjects humanly expressive enough to surmount such an obstacle to empathy. Further, the motorized milieu manifests in a noisy and aggressive style, devoid for at least the first half of the movie of the small charms that informed previous Pixar productions, so by the time Lightning begins his heroic turn and the movie becomes more engaging, it's hard to muster much interest in the outcome. Also with voices by Bonnie Hunt, Larry The Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, Joe Ranft, Michael Keaton, Richard Petty, Jeremy Piven, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Kind, Edie McClurg, H.A. 'Humpy' Wheeler, Tom Magliozzi, Ray Magliozzi, Lynda Petty, Andrew Stanton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Schumacher, Jay Leno, and Mario Andretti. Buena Vista's DVD release of Cars offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.39:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio. Extras include the new animated short "Mater and the Ghostlight," the Academy Award-nominated animated short "One Man Band," plus a featurette about John Lasseter's inspiration for Cars (16 min.) and four deleted (and never fully drawn) scenes. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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