PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2006, 12:00am

Starring the voices of: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt

Directors: John Lasseter

Category: I (English and Cantonese versions)

Pixar's winning streak had to hit a bump somewhere along the road. Through Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo to The Incredibles, the animation studio has been raising the bar in software innovation and storytelling. Cars doesn't exactly stall, but it does sputter a bit and doesn't quite fire with the same narrative horsepower as its predecessors.

For his first directorial effort since 1999's Toy Story 2, Pixar founder John Lasseter has settled on a nostalgic tale of a big city hotshot finding happiness in small-town Americana charm. Our anthropomorphic characters are talking automobiles, and life's fast lane is essentially the oval tracks of Nascar races. This is a Pixar paradise for rednecks, where no one worries about greenhouse gas or fossil-fuel shortages, and a paved road can be a thing of beauty.

On the way to a crucial race in California, a red spitfire hot rod named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson, although Michael J. Fox would have been so much better) gets lost and is stuck in a sleepy one-road desert town called Radiator Springs. There, he meets an assortment of kooky vehicles, a little slow of wheel but possessing carburettors of gold, including a polished little female Porsche (Bonnie Hunt).

Once the tale passes the frenetic vroom-vroom of the racetrack setting, it falls into an elegiac ornery warp that's somehow not quite right. For one, the lost town is off Route 66, in some bone-dry part of the desert. The combination of talking mechanical cars living happily in a realistic and barren landscape more suited to horse-and-wagon westerns is bizarre, to say the least.

The grand and wistful backdrop also defeats the magical visual fantasy that is the appeal of these computer-animated worlds. After all, if it's just breathtaking scenery we want, we can stick a camera in Monument Valley just like an old John Ford western.

Story-wise, there are some clever puns and car jokes, but there's little dynamism. Could Lasseter be struck with the George Lucas syndrome? The obsession with in-jokes and visual detailing - a car crash is based shot for shot on a famous Richard Petty race accident - puts some of the middle section in a traffic jam. At 121 minutes, Cars is - and feels like - Pixar's longest film. However, the ending is still pretty heartfelt and effective. Cars is hardly a lemon, but perhaps Pixar needs a tune-up and adjustment.

Cars opens today