Cars is Pixar’s most improbable success to date, a film that could easily have misfired but somehow does not.

Directed by Pixar honcho John Lasseter, who helmed Pixar’s first three films — the Toy Story films and A Bug’s Life — but hasn’t directed since, Cars recalls some of the elements that made A Bug’s Life the most pedestrian and uninspired project in Pixar’s filmography. The total absence of human beings, for one thing. And a formulaic story of a threatened community pulling together to overcome adversity.

Happily, Cars is no Bug’s. Offbeat and counter-intuitive, Cars finds a quirky creative groove and an emotional center that eluded the earlier Lasseter effort. The story of a callow young rookie racecar named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) whose rise to the top is sidetracked by an unplanned stopover in a sleepy time-forgotten town may be formulaic, and on first viewing the first 40 minutes or so — especially to an automotive non-enthusiast like me —seems a bit shaky. But the film’s sense of time and place, its 1950s small-town nostalgia, its jaw-dropping visual beauty, and its love of cars, the open road and the American Southwest ultimately elevate Cars to a level of art and entertainment that continues to defy even the best efforts of Pixar’s competitors.

Perhaps the film’s biggest risk is creating an automotive world without drivers. Cars takes place in a parallel universe in which fixtures of 20th-century Americana, from Nascar racing to the forgotten towns and mom-and-pop shops of Route 66, exist independently of human or animal life forms.

In this world, if you squint at the flies buzzing around light fixtures, they turn out to be little VW Bugs, and tractors stampede like cows — and are subject to nocturnal tipping by rural pranksters. Even buttes and cloud formations in the background reflect the film’s autocentric milieu, with fin-tail and hood-ornament shapes cropping up everywhere.

The non-human worlds of the Toy Story films and Monsters, Inc. provided an emotional point of entry for viewers precisely by imagining how toys and monsters would feel about us, thereby holding up a mirror to our feelings about them. Had Cars developed the automotive side of the driver-car relationship, that might have been an intriguing way of tapping into the great American love affair with the automobile.

Without drivers to care about, what motivates a vehicle? As you might expect, it’s the same things — or rather, the same kinds of things — that impel their human counterparts.

Like any brash, callow up-and-coming young athlete feeling his oats, Lightning McQueen is hungry to topple the big guys at the top — and to enjoy the rewards of celebrity, notably a lucrative new endorsement deal. Arrogant and self-centered, McQueen isn’t exactly a team player, and has little loyalty either toward his pit crew or his slightly stodgy current sponsor, Rust-eze, with its unglamorous clientele.

There’s also McQueen’s competition: classy reigning champ The King (voiced by racing icon Richard Petty), a 1970 Plymouth Superbird who’d like to retire in a (hopefully metaphorical) blaze of glory; and The King’s longtime rival, perennial runner-up Hick Chicks (Michael Keaton), who’s even more obnoxious than McQueen.

However, contrary to McQueen’s expectations, the most significant chapter in his life — and the heart of the film — takes place not on the racetrack or in the spotlight, but far from the beaten path of the Interstate, in the one-light town of Radiator Springs in Carburetor County. Once a prosperous rural community on the Route 66 thoroughfare from Illinois to California, Radiator Springs shared the decline of many similar towns that were bypassed by the new Interstate system.

For McQueen, Radiator Springs is the capital of Nowheresville. He wants nothing to do with it or its small-town inhabitants, although he may make an exception for a sweet little Porche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt). But locals like gruff, no-nonsense Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), Mater the tow truck (comedian Larry the Cable Guy), and the businesslike Sheriff (Route 66 historian Michael Wallis) only confirm McQueen’s prejudices, and make him want to blow town that much sooner.

Of course circumstances contrive to keep him in town and, of course, McQueen slowly learns that he’s misjudged the town and its inhabitants — not least Doc Hudson, as in Hudson Hornet of 1950s stock-car fame.

The plot elements are familiar and somewhat corny, most overtly resembling the 1991 Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood. But Cars has a specificity that goes beyond the lip service to small-town values typical of such films. It’s a heartfelt elegy to a lost culture, an homage to an almost mythic part of America’s past.

The Eisenhower-era nostalgia may be sincere, but it’s not always convincing. After all, it was Eisenhower who signed the Interstate Highway Act that doomed Route 66 and its small-town culture. Cars romanticizes the local feeling of a road that turned and wound “with the land” rather than cutting across it — conveniently overlooking the fact that those turns and bends cost lives, earning sections of the highway the moniker “Bloody 66.”

By contrast, the interstate is disparagingly said to save drivers only “10 minutes of driving time,” but multiply the number of drivers per year by the time and fuel saved, and the benefit seems appreciable. It may be painful to watch communities die, but whatever the answer is, it isn’t not building better roads.

If Cars is heavy on sentiment, it’s also genuinely endearing. The story is polished to a fare-thee-well, and the filmmakers have a few surprises up their sleeves. Refreshingly, neither of the big races that bookend the film ends the way formula would dictate. Cars doesn’t just mouth the platitude that winning isn’t everything. Respect, dignity and loyalty are really honored above finishing first.

Mater the tow truck (Tow Mater, get it?) is funny and sweetly personable, and Newman’s Doc Hudson has real dignity and quiet authority. And, while praising the visuals in CG cartoons has become commonplace, Pixar’s work here goes beyond eye-popping realism into stunning beauty. This isn’t just technique; it’s art. The sprawling landscapes in Cars are even more beautiful than the colorful coral-reef vistas of Finding Nemo, and that’s saying something.

P.S. Whatever you do, don’t miss the end-credit outtakes, which include the funniest end-reel gag in Pixar history, as the cars go to a drive-in and watch excerpts from a number of films that seem awfully familiar.

Content advisory: Anthropomorphic race-car mayhem; mild crude humor; a couple of oblique double-entendres. Fine family viewing.

Stephen D. Greydanus is

editor and chief critic of