Most of Pixar’s previous films have happened in a world hidden beneath our own. Toy Story told us what our toys are like when we leave the room. A Bug’s Life revealed what the creepy crawlies in our lawn are up to when we’re not around. Monster’s Inc. showed us the secret world of monsters hidden inside our closets. But Cars creates an entirely separate universe, one where humans have never existed and never will. It’s an entire planet full of Herbie the Love Bugs, and as concepts go it’s probably their least inspiring. Somehow, director John Lasseter takes this rather weak gimmick and makes it work; continuing Pixar’s unbroken streak of fantastic filmmaking against all odds. The trailers haven’t done the best job of selling it and the character designs look like something pulled out of a low-budget PBS kids show, but Cars is good anyway.

Though the movie’s big-eyed, childish looking characters might lead you to think otherwise, what the film really is, is a love letter to the heyday of the American road and the faded mystique of Route 66. What could have been Pixar’s most simplistic, pre-teen limited film turns out to be one of their biggest and most mature as it tackles larger themes that’ll probably fly right over the heads of kids. Sure interstate highways are nice, but what are we all missing when we’re whizzing by on our elevated, disconnected roads?

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is the youngest, most celebrated car on the race circuit. He’s brash, self-absorbed, and in love with his own celebrity. When the film opens he’s racing in his profession’s biggest competition: The Piston Cup. The winner will get a juicy contract with the sport’s wealthiest racing promoter, replacing The King, a respected champion on the verge of retirement. The race ends in a three-way tie, and McQueen must travel cross-country to California to race in a tie-breaker. En route he gets waylaid, and ends up trapped in an almost dead little town lost on the bones of what was once Route 66.

There we’re treated to a stunning display of visual artwork as McQueen travels breathtaking landscapes and meets a motley assortment of classic cars and rusty old junkers living in the last remains of a once vibrant town, fed off a now dried up stream of eager Route 66 travelers. There are moments in this film where you’ll forget you’re looking at a cartoon. We’re quick to throw around the word photorealistic when talking about computer animation, but Cars comes closer to actually achieving that than any animated movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a stunning piece of work, a real visual masterpiece, the kind of movie that would be a must see even if the story weren’t any good. Sure, the car designs look a little goofy, but they work those designs with every bit of formidable talent and craftsmanship at Pixar’s disposal. When not emoting, there are times when you’ll forget you’re looking at cartoon characters and think you’re just watching freshly polished live-action cars cruising down the open road at breakneck speeds. Who needs drivers?

As usual, it’s the characters that really sell Cars. Lasseter and his team have an incredible knack for finding the right kind of voice talent. The real surprise for me was Larry the Cable Guy, voicing a brain dead, rusty old tow truck who is quick to pronounce himself Lightning McQueen’s best friend. Though Larry eventually works in one of his cringe worthy “Git R Dones”, for most of the movie he steals the show, creating another classic character in Pixar’s rather impressive pantheon of toy cowboys, fuzzy monsters, and superheroes. Pixar movie regular John Ratzenberger is back too, in a small role as a Mack truck named appropriately, “Mack”. There’s a great joke about his ever present role in Pixar’s movies during the credits, make sure you stick around for that. Paul Newman is deep and wistful as the town judge Doc Hudson, Tony Shaloub is brilliant as a little Ferrari obsessed car name Luigi, and Michael Keaton blend right in as McQueen’s nemesis Chick Hicks. You won’t notice any of these actors, since all are almost unrecognizable as anything other than their characters. That’s a compliment, since there’s only one weak spot in the film when it comes to voice work, and it’s precisely because he’s so recognizable. Owen Wilson isn’t bad as the movie’s lead Lightning McQueen, he’s just too Owen. It’s hard to get very involved in the character when he’s played as if the oldest Wilson brother grew wheels and started spewing out air pollution. It’s too easy to think of him as Owen instead of Lightning McQueen.

It seems almost indecent in these days of skyrocketing gas prices and greenhouse gasses to make a movie glorifying a time when Americans hopped in their cars and drove just for the sake of driving. Most of us now find ourselves looking for ways to drive less, we long ago lost whatever joy there was in the uniquely Americana road trip. We can’t afford to drive just for the hell of it. But there was a time before highways when the best way to see the world was simply to roll down your window and inhale the sweet mountain air. Those days are gone forever, but Cars presents a thoughtful, uniquely American story that asks you to stop and consider what we’ve lost since abandoning them.

Josh Tyler