knew something was very wrong when Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater was my favorite character in Pixar’s latest film, Cars. In many ways Mater is the character that kept me involved in the story, which takes almost two hours to finally reach its conclusion, and which falters so badly in the second act that the children seated behind me began to fidget and twitch.

Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen is a hotshot racecar in a world where there are no people, just autos. He’s new on the circuit, and rising fast. His main rival is the sleazy Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), a car sick of coming in second. Now that The King (Richard Petty) is about to retire, Chick is looking to destroy Lightning and take the Piston Cup, the biggest trophy in the race game.

While on his way to California for the big Piston Cup race, Lightning gets lost and ends up in the town of Radiator Springs. Once a bustling community on Route 66, Radiator Springs has become barren once all the traffic was diverted to the new interstate. In what is surely the worst action scene in Pixar history, Lightning lays waste to Radiator Springs’ main street and is sentenced to stay in town until he can repave it. Cue standard-fare city vs small town conflicts as Lightning just wants to get out of Radiator Springs and make it to the Piston Cup.

The town is filled with a bunch of “offbeat” characters, most of whom never get any time or even very many lines – I couldn’t tell you one interesting thing Cheech Marin’s Ramone did or said in the movie’s running time. George Carlin’s VW bus, Filmore, is characterized by a couple of lame hippie one-liners (of the “Far out, man!” variety) that anyone could have delivered.  Of course at the end of the movie, when Lightning has learned his Valuable Lesson, each of these characters get a special moment, but they’re all meaningless as they’ve all been just background. It’s especially disappointing in a John Lasseter film – one of the strengths of his Toy Story movies was how he handled his ensemble cast of toys, giving most of them clear personalities, even that wheezy penguin.

There are three characters in town who do get development (and lines): Bonnie Hunt is Sally, a flashy Porsche lawyer who left the glamour of Los Angeles to run a motel in Radiator Springs. Mater is the white trash pick-up truck who happens to be the world’s best backwards driver. And Paul Newman is Doc Hudson, the town doctor and judge, with a Hidden Past that connects him to Lightning (no, he’s not his dad. The details of car reproduction are not hit on).

Except for Mater none of these characters are compelling. Doc Hudson is downright irritating, and Lightning McQueen is one of those characters who you wish would just stopw whining and learn his lesson so the damn movie can move along. But then once he does learn his lesson he has to take in another one, this time a history lesson about the town set to the annoying strains of Jackson Brown.

I appreciate the film’s nostalgia; it looks back to a time when Route 66 meant something, and to a time when people would drive through the countryside, not around it. We’re losing touch with our land in a big, non-hippie way, thanks to the series of bland and generic interstate highways. It is nice to look back at a time when you could drive down a road and see unique shops and inns, not chain restaurants and Motel 6s. And the film’s nostalgia is a functional one, which reminded me a lot of Toy Story 2 – Lasseter and crew aren’t looking at the old days as something to yearn for but rather as a functional alternative. In Toy Story 2 Woody is a toy still worth playing with; in Cars Route 66 is a road still worth driving on.

The film looks great – there’s no denying that Pixar continues to blaze the path when it comes to computer animation. I wonder if competing animation companies see these films and feel energized or defeated by the visual brilliance. The visual stuff is really important here, and not just for the desert vistas or the exciting car races – these characters are barely anthropomorphic, and it takes serious artistry to bring them to life in a way where we can identify with them. But for all the technical feats of the artists and animators, they can’t fill in the gaps that the actors and writers have left in the characters.

Cars runs out of gas long before it reaches the finish line. With twenty minutes cut it could have been a contender, but it’s the worst Pixar film to date.

6 out of 10