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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Not that Cars ever idles, for the townsfolk constitute a sweet if improbable rainbow coalition of vintage vehicles. They support the trio that will retool Lightning's egotism into community spirit: gruff Doc Hudson; lovely, sensible Sally; and--the movie's breakout car-actor--an endearingly yokelish tow truck named Mater.

It's Mater who teaches Lightning the truth of any Lasseter film: friendship is family. "To Lightning," he says, "Mater represents pure friendship. Like a dog: 'I'll be by your side forever.'" (Mater was the inspiration of Ranft, whose story-tweaking genius infused every Pixar movie. Tragically, he died last August, when the car he was in missed a turn on that beautiful winding road, California's Pacific Coast Highway.)

Lasseter is an old hand at humanizing machines. Cars does it in large part with the detailing of "facial" features. Most car 'toons anthropomorphize their characters by having the headlights serve as the eyes. Lasseter, following a charming Disney short, the 1952 Susie, the Little Blue Coupe, made the windshield the eyes. Cars also has fun turning hood ornaments into mustaches, grilles into mouths. More important, it evokes shifts of mood by the subtle shift of body weight, the low growl of an engine.

All this speaks to the unmatchable narrative and graphic ingenuity Pixar brings to its projects. "In computer animation," says Lasseter, "every detail has to be thought out, designed, modeled, shaded, placed and lit. The more you add, the more computer memory you need. We brought computer memories to their knees with this one."

A brief stay in Radiator Springs brings Lightning to his senses: to the recognition that the old have tricks to teach the young, that winning means more than coming in first and that speed can't top taking your time to savor the scenery--that, as Lasseter says, "the journey in life is the reward."

As the new hydra-head of animation, Lasseter may have an uphill journey: not just keeping Pixar on track (Brad Bird's Ratatouille, about a gourmet rodent in Paris, is next, probably followed by Toy Story 3), but also in steering the Mousemobile back to speed. In 1994, when The Lion King capped a series of animation hits, Disney's bright future seemed as sure a bet as Pixar's does now. Then Toy Story came out, and computer animation took over. Before buying Pixar, a desperate Disney had scuttled its traditional animation unit. Lasseter may restore that. "Of all studios that should be doing 2-D animation, it should be Disney," he says. "We haven't said anything publicly, but I can guarantee you that we're thinking about it. Because I believe in it."

Reconciling Pixar's postmodern culture with the Disney tradition seems tough. But if high-tech Lightning McQueen could find his destiny in retro Radiator Springs, why can't Lasseter find a way to turn yesterday into tomorrow at Disney? He's surely shown opposites can attract in his wonderful new film. Existing both in turbo-charged today and the gentler '50s, straddling the realms of Pixar styling and old Disney heart, this new-model Cars is an instant classic.

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