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Cars review

The day will eventually come when the golden run will stall. Six hit movies out of six is a record just gagging to fall victim to the law of averages. But with Pixar chief Lasseter at the wheel of Cars, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, it's not a classic. But neither is it the flop being gloated over in surlier circles. With Pixar so far ahead of the other players in the animation game, its movies can only really be judged in comparison to the rest of its output. As a technical achievement, Cars is peerless. But in terms of story and character, it falls short of the breath-catching emotional starburst of Finding Nemo or the knockabout poignancy of Toy Story 2. Nor does it quite ping with that instant-classic vibe of The Incredibles or Monsters, Inc. Instead, it hovers somewhere just above A Bug's Life: fun but flawed; slick but sappy.

As ever, it's a world full of typical Pixar ingenuity: the cars, from the sleekest speed demon to crappiest old truck, are alive and the team has faithfully crafted an environment for the characters. Witness Radiator Springs, a chunk of smalltown Ameri-car-na stuck in the middle of a desert backwater. Back when Route 66 was the main thoroughfare across the States, it was a bustling town. Now, while its locals have tried to keep the place going, it's dying from a lack of trade.

When racer Lightning McQueen (Wilson) literally crashes into town, they initially see him as an annoying and painful symbol of the world that has bypassed them. It's a fertile touchstone for character design, and the Radiator residents add to Pixar's ever-growing roster. Lightning is your regulation Hero With A Journey, but the town's citizens are a loveable - if a little stereotypical - mix, crackling with soul and personality. Even throwaway elements such as the tiny Volkswagen bugs are crafted with style and heart to spare.

But it's the visuals that really sing - with eye-zapping flair and groundbreaking detail close up and lurking in every seemingly irrelevant corner. There are more ideas and mini-ideas on screen in one frame here than in the whole of lesser animated efforts (repeat viewing of Madagascar, anyone?). Chrome sparkles, hoods dazzle, light and speed-sensitive reflections bounce off each other. The environments are so finely crafted, there are times when they feel almost photo-realistic, with character motion seeming strangely overlaid, Bedknobs And Broomsticks-style.

That trickiest of animation touches - melding emotion to the imagery - is mostly bang-on. The racetrack introduction to Lightning and his rivals perfectly nails the primal thrill of the race and pumps a thrusting, seat-shaking pace into the early minutes. In a completely different way, our first look at Radiator Springs is a measured lesson in how to present a multitude of quietly desperate but good-humoured characters. Everything feels organic and unforced.

But the problem starts when Lasseter and his writers slam on the brakes to divert Cars down a reflective and dewy-eyed elegy to Route 66, America of the past and the '50s/'60s golden age of motoring. Unusually for a Pixar movie, the pace slows to a crawl, and while indulging a passion for the rickety-wheeled wonders and worthy ideals of yesteryear is one thing, force-feeding it to an audience who expects a kooky movie with talking motors is another. It's here where Cars slips over into culturally specific nostalgia and jarring melancholy.

For once, it feels like a team whose mantra famously insists that story is king has settled for one or two pedestrian plot beats. Whereas the likes of Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc took well-used tropes and gave them an elegant, intelligent, uniquely Pixar twist, a burgeoning romance between McQueen and motel-owning convertible Sally (Hunt) feels a little factory-preset, and the buddy banter between Mater and McQueen is nowhere near as fresh or feisty as Dory/Marlin, Sulley/Mike, Buzz/Woody???

And while, say, Monsters' finale is based around a mould-breaking, visually spectacular chase, Cars closes on an inevitable face-off which, for all of its onscreen heat, makes for an ending that's as frustrating as it is satisfying.

Still, while not everything here is as envelope-shoving as the standards set by previous efforts, when Cars hits top gear, it's still universal, unstoppable entertainment for all ages. Business as usual, then...

Amazing bodywork, but one or two duff parts under the hood... It's still a wild ride, just not as smooth as Pixar usually demands.

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