Yes, it's another charming, high-quality production from Pixar, with well-conceived characters, a clever conceit, beautiful scenery, and flawless animation. So why doesn't Cars measure up to previous Pixar releases?
It might be its two-hour length - the film's too long by a good twenty minutes. It might be the overly familiar storyline: hotshot city boy gets stuck in small town, learns to slow down and enjoy life - Cars is basically a remake of the Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood, only in a world filled with anthropomorphized automobiles. It might be its sleepy, even somber tone (abetted, perhaps, by the death of co-director/co-writer Joe Ranft during production - he was killed in a car crash, no less). It might be the story's predictability: each twist and resolution is telegraphed far in advance, whereas a Pixar film is usually so frantically paced that the audience doesn't have time to notice the plot's seams, and Lasseter and his writers neglected to throw in any real surprises.
Or it might just be that I am not a fan of car racing, car culture, or car anything.
But then I'm not a big ichthyophile either, and I liked Finding Nemo just fine.
I guess it's just hard to make cars really personable, even if Lasseter and team do it as well as it can be done. Still, Cars has plenty of lovely moments, especially during an elegiac second act song number (Lasseter just adores them; there hasn't been one in a Pixar movie since Toy Story 2, the last feature Lasseter directed), an ode to Route 66's bygone days. It's the most poignant moment in an altogether inward-looking movie, even if they got James Taylor, for pete's sake, to sing it. (I was hoping they could at least work a song by The Cars into the soundtrack, or Gary Numan's eponymous tune. Yes, I'm joking.)
It's ironic, if in retrospect probably inevitable, that Lasseter & co. have raised the bar so high on the computer animated motion picture that eventually they themselves wouldn't be able to meet it. Yet perhaps it's a good thing that Cars isn't going to top Nemo or The Incredibles in any sense. Every creative team needs a little slump here and there in order to make them want to push harder the next time. And I'm not saying that Cars is a bad movie. It's just not that much fun.