Imagine a world totally made up of cars, including bugs with headlights and horns. That will give you a hint of the nonstop dazzle that awaits you in Cars. Director John Lasseter, the Pixar wizard behind both Toy Story landmarks, dishes out visual miracles with a quiet confidence that doesn’t need to show off. It’s also there in the script Lasseter helped write with Joe Ranft (who died in a car accident last summer). The plot is simplicity itself: Lightning McQueen, voiced with sass and sincerity by Owen Wilson, is a star rookie on the NASCAR circuit. He is on his way to the Piston Cup Championship in Los Angeles when he’s caught speeding through the forgotten town of Radiator Springs and sentenced to community service. The judge who slows Lightning is Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet with medals of his own hidden away in the garage. Who better than acting and racing legend Paul Newman, 81, to voice Doc? Newman invests Doc with such easy humor and true grit that even he calls it his best performance since 1982’s The Verdict.
Lasseter, the son of a car-parts manager, seems born for this movie. The scene in which Mater, a tow truck, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, takes Lightning out at night for some cow-tipping — but the cows are now tractors — is a classic. As is the revenge the next morning when the tractors ride into town like pissed-off outlaws. For sex, get a load of the sleek Porsche (Bonnie Hunt gives her a seductive purr) that gets Lightning’s engine humming. Auto-eroticism takes on new meaning here. Cars is family fun, brimming with surprises too good to spoil in a review. The message may be old hat — stop and smell the roses — but Lasseter gives it a visual and vocal pop that is downright breathtaking. Whether it’s the thunderous excitement of the big races that open and close the film or an Oscar-ready Randy Newman tune called ”Our Town” that James Taylor sings with heart-catching beauty, Cars is a class act all the way. Pixar does it again.