Get Your Motor Running

Pixar, the champs of digital animation, put the pedal to the metal with Cars--the first great movie of the summer

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John Lasseter grew up in Southern California, where driving is people's passion and second career, and a car their church and fortress. So if you ask Lasseter about car love, you get an impromptu prose poem. "Car love," he says, "is the sound of a throaty V-8 rumbling and revving, the acceleration throwing you back in the seat--especially when you get on a beautiful, winding road and the light's dappling through the trees. For me, it's a combination of enjoying the beauty of cars, classic or cool modern ones, and also the actual driving: getting out on the open road, whether it's a family road trip or driving by myself on a nice windy road and enjoying the ride."

Lasseter, 49, is also the Dale Earnhardt of computer animators, the first name in a mammothly successful form of popular art he pretty much created, beginning with his short Luxo Jr. in 1986. From the start, he's been the soul of Pixar Animation: he directed its first three hits (Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2) and executive-produced its next three (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles). Early this year, when Disney bought Pixar--basically paying about $7 billion for Lasseter's brain--he became boss of the grand old animation studio as well as the most revered modern one. His job: get both groups to make great movies.

They couldn't have a model that's smarter, snazzier or more moving, kinetically and emotionally, than Lasseter's Cars, which opens June 9. "I love having inanimate objects come to life," he says, ever the boy who can't stop tinkering and dreaming. All the characters are cars, but they're engagingly human. The lands they inhabit are richly detailed (thanks to years of research by Lasseter, co-director Joe Ranft and their team) and worlds apart: the NASCAR circuit, where autos and egos collide at 180 m.p.h., and a 1950s-ish town, keeping a sense of community far from the superhighway rat race.

Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen (as in speed and Steve), the hottest rookie on the circuit, and doesn't he know it! He's got drive, heaven knows, but no perspective. Who needs friends, or a pit crew? He's a one-man show! Ka-chow! Lightning's main rivals in the movie's opening race are "the King" (racing legend Richard Petty), who's going for one last win before he retires, and a dirty-driving mug named Chick (Michael Keaton), who's so rotten that one of his sponsor decals reads htB, for Hostile Takeover Bank.

An unexpected detour lands Lightning in Radiator Springs, a southwestern hamlet off Route 66 that lost its bustle and prosperity when the Interstate went up ages ago. The town's pulse--does it even have one?--doesn't suit Lightning, who's itching to get to L.A. for the biggest race of his young career. But he's stuck in nowheresville, obliged to repave a road he had torn up on his way through.

Up to now, Cars has been motoring at a Mach pace, as gags and characters flash by. Once in Radiator Springs, the film moseys to the tempo of a town time forgot. Even the songs slow down (yes, this is also a musical), from John Mayer's vigorous take on Route 66 to James Taylor warbling Randy Newman's gorgeously plaintive Our Town.

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