One of the recent big smashes from animation wizards Pixar, the oceanographic fish comedy Finding Nemo, had a bit of an environmental theme to it. This new digi-spectacular is, however, very much not encumbered by politically correct worries of this kind. It is set in an airless imaginary world of cutely anthropomorphic vehicles who, like the toys or fish or bugs of previous adventures, have minds and quirkily differentiated personalities of their own. The difference here is that there are no humans from which their quasi-human identities are a secret: the cars have no drivers, and the teeming crowds at the racetrack are cars too. It's all cars.

The movie is a cheerful celebration of the lovable automobile, and particularly a fondly imagined golden age of motorvatin' on the open road: heading out west on Route 66, and encountering the kind of authentic smalltown America that is getting economically and culturally starved by the soulless interstate highways built to bypass these communities. Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a snappy, zappy young sports car planning to win the all-important Piston Cup on his very first professional outing. His name may or may not be in homage to Steve McQueen: movie actor and speed king. Lightning is preparing to race two fierce rivals at the gigantic meeting in Los Angeles, but on the way there finds himself marooned in a tiny, sleepy little town called Radiator Springs, populated by hick cars with various wacky voices, and naturally learns life lessons about how smalltown values are best. This is a lesson traditionally promoted in Hollywood movies - written, produced and performed by people who couldn't wait to get away from their dullsville home towns and head for the LA dream factory.

Wilson's co-star is Paul Newman, another famous real-life racer from the movies voicing a grumpy old 1950s car called Doc Hudson, who turns out to be a famous race star from half a century back and who, in spite of himself, begins to mentor hot-headed young Lightning and teach him some old-school racing moves. Lightning's fast-talking agent was originally voiced by Jeremy Piven from, among other things, TV's The Larry Sanders Show, but for the UK release this character has been awkwardly dubbed in by leading local petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson.

There are a couple of nice touches, including a subliminal depiction of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears as a talking Humvee. There's a lachrymose fire engine who is forever turning on the waterworks, and tractors in the surrounding fields, lowing like cows. But a lot of the time it's just the tiniest bit dull with no decent gags or songs, and the score is heavily reliant on singing cover versions of Route 66. Naturally the animation is top-of-the-range, but an awful lot of mega-bytes and laptop hours have been lavished on the frankly uninteresting spectacle of those zillions of almost identical little car spectators in the stadium, their flashbulbs twinkling. The car-creatures zoom by impressively enough but there are very few point-of-view shots from the racing cockpits. Perhaps Lasseter thought this would make it look too much like a video game, or that it would allude too directly to the actual danger inherent in real-world racing. But it would have injected some much-needed excitement. And there really aren't any villains: apart from one swaggering car-competitor who isn't all that mean. One of his stickers reveals a sponsor called HTB, or Hostile Takeover Bank - not a masterpiece of clever scriptwriting. Needless to say, there appears to be a strict ban on cigarette advertising for these race meets.

There's nothing inherently wrong with Cars, but nothing very much right either, certainly not considering everyone's sky-high expectations of Pixar, and almost every hi-tech animation that comes down the pipe. The awful truth is that we are becoming blase about animation technology that just a few years ago would have had us on the floor, gasping. Now these movies are having to rediscover the old verities of script and voicework, which incidentally helped to make Pixar's The Incredibles such a wonderful film. On this front, Cars just doesn't have much in the tank, though Newman's character is droll and personable - a voice role that faintly recalls his reprised performance as "Fast Eddie" Felson in The Color of Money, the ageing pool hustler coaching callow Tom Cruise.

There is a rather flavourless self-satisfaction radiating from each highly worked pixel: the movie actually has a little homage to its own greatest hits like Toy Story and A Bug's Life, with the characters being played by cars - those were terrific films, of course, but it's a little smug to award classic status to yourself quite so publicly. Cars is such a luxurious and professionally engineered piece of entertainment, that this almost doesn't matter. It's unobjectionable enough, despite the naivety of using cars to complain about American culture being despoiled by new roads. But watching Cars is like being taken for a ride in a shiny new Lexus. Smooth, but bland and forgettable.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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