Cars (2006): John (Toy Story) Lasseter’s Fast-Paced, Exhilarating Comedy-Adventure

All the ingredients that have made Pixar animations such pure delight and box-office bonanza are evident in Cars, a technically impressive, entertainingly funny, and emotionally heartfelt feature that should dominate the family movie marketplace in the early summer.

The masterful storytellers and technical wizards at Pixar Animation Studios have taken moviegoers magically into the realm of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, and super-heroes with such brilliant movies as “Monsters Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles.”

Oscar-wining director John Lasseter (“Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2,” “A Bug’s Life”) hits the road with “Cars,” a fast-paced comedy-adventure set inside the world of cars.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hotshot rookie race car driven to success at all costs, discovers that life is more about the journey, not just the finish line, when he finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy Route 66 town of Radiator Springs.

On route across the country to the big Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros, McQueen gets to know the town’s offbeat characters. Sally, a snazzy 2002 Porsche (voiced by TV’s Bonnie Hunt), Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past (voiced by the great Paul Newman), and Mater, a rusty but trusty tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), help McQueen realize that there are more important things in life than trophies, fame and sponsorship.

As in most Pixar movies, the writers start with the heart of the characters, then work on their exterior faade, thus endowing even a mechanical object like cars a unique character and personality.

The driving force behind “Cars” is John Lasseter, who returns to directing for the first time since Toy Story 2 in 1999. During the past seven years, Lasseter has executive produced and overseen all of Pixars creative endeavors (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles) and supervised the building of a new state-of-the-art studio in Emeryville, California. This latest film taps into Lasseters personal love of cars and racing.

The all-star vocal cast also includes freewheeling performances by racing legend Richard Petty, Cheech Marin, Michael Keaton, Tony Shaloub, Paul Dooley, and others. Fueled with plenty of humor, action, heartfelt drama, and amazing new technical feats, Cars is a high-octane delight for all moviegoers, even those who don’t drive yet; after all, who has not fantasized of owning a classy car.

“Cars” is co-directed by Joe Ranft, who also served as story supervisor for the film, and voiced several incidental characters. A gifted story artist, Ranft was the voice behind such favorite Pixar characters as Heimlich the ravenous caterpillar (A Bugs Life), Wheezy the penguin (Toy Story 2), and Jacques the shrimp (Finding Nemo). He had collaborated with Lasseter on all three of his previous directing efforts and had been a key creative force at Pixar for over a decade.

Central to “Cars” plot is the iconic Route 66, along which much of the story takes place. Lasseter and his team headed out on the historic highway on several occasions to research and observe the importance and impact of this cultural phenomenon. Route 66 expert Wallis, who has been exploring the Mother Road for over 60 years and who served as guide for the research trips, considers Route 66 to be a mirror held up to the nation, because it reflects whats going on in the nation at any given time.

Indeed, for most people, Route 66 is the most famous and iconic in the world, representing the great American road trip, from Chicago through the heartland and the Southwest, past ribbons of neon, across the great Mojave to the Pacific shore at Santa Monica. Route 66 is the road the Dust Bowlers took, and during World War II, it was used as a military road. Its also the road of Bobby Troup and Elvis. Most Americans, at some point in their lives, whether they knew it or not, have taken that road.

Contributing to the film’s authenticity and fun are vocal performances from some of the greatest names in the racing world, including the legendary Richard Petty, plus drive-on roles by Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Darrell Waltrip (who holds the record for five wins at the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600), and Michael Schumacher, the ace German Formula 1 racing legend, who is considered to be the best Grand Prix racing driver of all time.

Veteran Olympic and sports commentator Bob Costas lends his seasoned voice to the character of Bob Cutlass, the colorful host at the films racing events. Tom and Ray Magliozzi (aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers), hosts of the popular NPR program Car Talk (first broadcast in Boston in 1977 and picked up nationally ten years later), weigh in as the not-so-coveted sponsors Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze.

“Cars” represents one of Pixars most challenging efforts to date since the protags are metallic and heavily contoured; the creators needed to come up with resourceful ways to accurately show reflections. Moreover, it’s the first Pixar film to use ray tracing, a technique that allows the car stars to credibly reflect their environments.

The addition of reflections in every shot of the film is time-consuming. The average time to render a single frame of film for “Cars was 17 hours. Even with a sophisticated network of 3,000 computers, and state-of-the-art lightning-fast processors that operate up to four times faster than they did on The Incredibles, it still took days to render a single second of finished film. Lasseter insisted on truth to materials and instructed the animation team not to stretch or squash the cars in ways that would be inconsistent with their heavy metal frames. The animators did a lot of road testing to get the characters to behave in both credible and entertaining way and found ways to add subtle bends and gestures that were true to their construction. The animators also discovered how to use the tires almost as hands to help the cars with their performance.

A fitting tribute to Pixar’s twentieth anniversary, “Cars” also serves as homage to the gifted co-director Ranft, who passed away in August 2005.