the orlando sentinel

"Cars," which was to be Pixar's last film for Disney before Michael Eisner was run out and the studios kissed, made up and merged, feels like a "contractual obligation" movie.

You remember the term from music. It's when an artist, say Prince or Polyphonic Spree, owes a company one more CD/album or whatever, and they just go through the motions simply to finish off their deal.

The folks at Pixar may have been saving better ideas for their own independent-of-Disney releases. They may have shamelessly pandered to the NASCAR crowd, eyeing the many toys they could license out of a movie about adorable race-cars, tow-trucks and the like.

Sell-out aside, this certainly has the sheen of their best work. It's beautiful to look at. The talking cars feel more alive than talking cars should.

But the movie's just not funny.

"Cars" is the story of cocky young "Piston Cup" rookie Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a challenger to The King (Richard Petty voicing a 1970 NASCAR Superbird) and his perennial runner-up, Chick (voiced by Michael Keaton). He figures its his due, history and paying dues be darned.

"I'm a one-man show," he crows, ignoring The King, who advises him to stop firing his pit crews and become part of a team.

There's to be a three-way match race in California between the trio, but Lightning gets lost on the way. He's sidetracked to sleepy, desert-bound Radiator Springs, "the cutest little town in Carburetor County," in the heart of the Ornament Valley.

He runs afoul of the law, an ancient Hudson Hornet, impeccably voiced by Paul Newman. The DA (Bonnie Hunt as a Porsche) may be cute, and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the tow truck -- "Tow-Mater. Git it?" -- may be friendly, but Lightning doesn't have time to pay his debt to society. So what if time and the Interstate have passed Route 66 and Radiator Springs by? He's got places to be, a sponsorship to court, a race to win.

The judge, also a doctor, has life lessons to teach the kid. The Porsche has flirting to do. That's charming, for a bit. After awhile, you start to wonder which of the many, many credited writers on this was sniffing the WD-40. The middle 45 minutes of this may be the longest, dullest piece of 3-D animation not to include the voice of Ray Romano. Nothing, nothing funny happens.

George Carlin is the hippy VW Miocrobus, Cheech Marin is the low-riding Chevy, and they have virtually nothing funny to say or do, despite the on-the-nose casting.

That leaves Larry the Cable Guy to carry the comedy, making double-entendres about his "left lug nuts," and the like. Classy.

The fellows from National Public Radio's "Car Talk" show up as a couple of laughing, wisecracking wrecks. But that's not the target audience here. NASCAR voices such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Darrell Waltrip turn up, and there's a little novelty in Waltrip doing his Fox Sports shtick as a retired race car calling races for fans who include drawling RVs in the infield.

Pander as they might, Pixar couldn't make this variation of the "take time to smell the roses" and "There is no 'I' in 'team'" lecture amusing. Pixar's mantra has always been "It's all about the story," but they didn't have one here.

It's great looking. But even race cars get the knocks when you're too cheap to fill them up with premium.

Rating: C

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