By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 07, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Cars: Pixar/Disney

Having fallen in love with a bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphized vehicles who express emotion with eyes made from windshields and smiles from metallic front grills, I do believe the exemplary Pixar team who made the beguiling comedy adventure Cars could draw a mote of dust and a pair of socks and turn them into characters worth caring about. I also bet that any story the Pixarites came up with about dust and socks (with John Ratzenberger lending his voice to the supporting role of the shoelace) is bound to be more rewarding than 90 percent of anything coming out of Hollywood Blockbusterville this summer. As it is, this witty charmer of an automotive adventure — part catnip for NASCAR enthusiasts, part nostalgia trip for fanciers of Route 66 and Paul Newman — features a 1951 Hudson Hornet, a rusty tow truck, a hippy-dippy 1960 VW bus, and a herd of tractors prone to tipping over and farting exhaust fumes of fright. And I’d rather spend time with them than with all the code-cracking sleuths The Da Vinci Code has to offer.

For the millions who love Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mario Andretti, and Michael Schumacher, so much the better: Playing animated four-wheel versions of themselves (on the assumption that a man is what he drives), the voices of the real track stars blend easily with those of more recognizable thespians in the instructive story of hotshot race-car rookie Lightning McQueen. Just a curlicue of vocal cockiness courtesy of Owen Wilson is enough to convey the crucial fact that McQueen — a my-way-or-the-highway type who claims not to need no help from no one — is, in fact, precisely the kind who needs to learn how to slow down and smell the off-ramps. The picture opens with a race (featuring cars, don’t forget, with big expressive eyeballs) as rigorously accurate for aficionados as it is fun for novices. And the unbeatable Pixar skill at rendering texture, perspective, background, movement, and detail is so casual in its dazzle that it’s tempting to take the up-close view, vertiginous feel, and aerodynamic accuracy of racetrack curves rounded at lightning speed for granted.

Anyhow, a three-way finish for McQueen, the reigning race champ Strip ”The King” Weathers (that’s Petty), and showboating corner cutter Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) forces an elimination race for the Piston Cup in L.A. And as he heads out to compete (hauled by Mack, a 1985 Super-Liner voiced by behind-the-mike mainstay John Ratzenberger), an accidental detour strands McQueen off the interstate in Radiator Springs.

That’s where Cars switches from knowing, needling observer of NASCAR culture (and its attendant endorsement perks) and becomes avuncular promoter of small-town life as seen in loving photo books about Route 66 ghost towns. Stalled in a poky burg all but out of business since the interstate siphoned tourist traffic away, an impatient McQueen stays only under duress, educated by townsfolk including local judge Doc Hudson (Newman, himself a car racer, in the role of a 1951 jalopy that fits the 81-year-old actor like a trophy), the loyal and hee-hawing tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and the onetime fast-lane Porsche 911, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt, another favorite Pixar vocalizer).

The lesson McQueen learns — that loyalty, community, and an appreciation of life’s detours matter as much as or more than individual advancement — isn’t anything we haven’t been fed a hundred times, most recently explained by an animated raccoon and his foraging buddies in Over the Hedge, and learned by Michael J. Fox 15 years ago in Doc Hollywood. But as the movie slows down to take in the scenery in and around imaginary, iconic Radiator Springs — a dusty Shangri-la out of Happy Days, a paean to tail fins and sunsets and mesas and neon, embroidered with some of Randy Newman’s prettiest songwriting about little pleasures — Cars opens, gently and delicately, into something even more shimmering and soulful than the computerized glint of sunlight on car metal. Reigning Pixar director John Lasseter grew up amid California car culture, the son of a Chevy parts-department manager, and — with co-director Joe Ranft (who died, tragically, in a car accident before the picture was completed) and the Pixar team — has created a work of American art as classic as it is modern. Note to tourists: Leave before the very end of the credits and you’ll miss some of the best and funniest roadside sights.