For most of my friends and colleagues, Toy Story 2 remains Pixar's peak, and I can't bicker much with that. The first Toy Story was a revelation, showing both what computer animation could do, and how rewarding it could be to see a kidflick tightly plotted, and rooted in sincere emotion. The second Toy Story was even tighter and more poignant; and it also confronted the limitations of the nostalgic feelings the first movie stirred up. For all its technical flash, Toy Story is a movie about clinging to the old-fashioned. Toy Story 2 is about accepting that the old-fashioned doesn't stay charming forever. The second movie also toned down the at-times shrill Woody/Buzz rivalry from part one, replacing it with more nuanced characterization up and down the board. It's pretty much a perfect movie.

Is it my favorite Pixar? Almost. I like A Bug's Life a hair more, because I remained wowed by the widescreen compositions, cleverly constructed plot, low-key voice performances (hooray for Dave Foley!) and–dare I say it–cuteness. Some people resist the cute. I do not. Even before I had kids, I liked kid-friendly characters with rounded corners and big "love me" eyes. And now that I have kids, I respond even more strongly to scenes like the one in A Bug's Life where the elementary school class acts out the vanquishing of the grasshoppers. What can I say? It's biology. We're wired to think our younglings are adorable so that we'll feed them and nurture them and won't club them with a stick when they get on our nerves.

As it happens, both Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo came out within a year or so of my wife and I having our first child, which may partly explain why I feel more fondly towards both those movies–which are about parental attachment, essentially–than a lot of my non-kid-having critic pals. I do think both movies have a lot to recommend them though. Monsters Inc. is loose and funny, with a stunning climactic action sequence and a gut-punch ending that makes me get misty just recalling it. It may be the most underrated Pixar. (I'd slot it third on my favorites list.) As for Finding Nemo, it's an exquisitely designed and rendered film. Whatever its hokey-ness and forced emotional manipulation, on a technical level its never less than amazing. It was created in a digital world and loses almost nothing on DVD, but I still can't shake the experience of seeing it on a big screen on opening weekend, where the play of light and color was like sitting inside an aquarium.

That's about the best thing I can say about Cars, that it looks unlike anything I've ever seen on a movie screen. And that's not meant to be faint praise. Spectacle is half the battle in blockbuster moviemaking, and there are so many visually thrilling sequences in Cars: the opening race (with its shiny surfaces and machine-gun editing), the ride down the interstate (with its vivid landscapes and realistically shifting perspectives), the Radiator Springs courtroom (filled with dusty natural light), the flashback song (so full of detail), the Radiator Springs re-lighting (all soft neon), and the closing race (more flash and energy). And in the sequence where our hero Lightning McQueen imagines what winning The Piston Cup will mean to his career, the Pixar team goes a little off-model for a frenzied, outsized dream sequence much more cutting and crazy than anything they've ever tried.

If only the follow-through was as winning as the come-on. I don't want to get too deeply into the story problems with Cars, because there's not much I could say that would differ from what other critics have said; and anyway this blog project isn't really about re-reviewing the summer movies (except when I decide to do it anyway). I will say that for a company whose reputation has been built on "getting the script right" before going into full production, the recycled plot and saggy midsection of Cars comes as kind of a shock. It's not a total deal-breaker by any means, because there's something comforting and liturgical about a narrative where a shallow hot-shot learns what's really important in life; and when it comes to Pixar, the gags and characters are usually as important as the story. But even the gags aren't as consistently sharp this time out–they're a little clanging at times, to be honest.

And can I confess something? I was a little freaked out by the cars. They were pretty neat-looking, but the whole idea of a world populated entirely by cars just raised too many questions for me. Who builds the cars? Are there car presidents and car congressmen? And where did the gas come from anyway? Car dinosaurs?

But that's just something to kick around while watching the movie. After the credits roll–and the credits were the funniest part of the movie, by the way–Cars "The Movie" ends and Cars "The Cultural Experience" begins. My wife and I went to the movie on a Friday night–without the kids, since they're still a little too young to sit in a theater for two hours–and on Saturday, when we went to Wal-Mart to shop for a birthday party, we headed straight for the Cars display in the toy aisle and ended up buying a magnet-book, a T-shirt and a toy car for the birthday boy, a T-shirt for our son, and a talking stuffed car for our daughter. Sunday we went to McDonald's and got two Happy Meals: one with a Lightning McQueen car, and one with a Tow Mater.

Yes, it's all crass commercialism and has nothing to do with the art of the cinema, blah blah blah. But frankly, part of the blockbuster experience–the true blockbusters, the ones that hover in the zeitgeist all summer–is all the cheap plastic memorabilia that keeps the movie in our hearts and minds and on the soles of our bare feet every goddamn day.

And yes, on one level, the idea of synergistic marketing seems to run counter to the movie's insistence that selling out is bad. But on another, plainer level, Cars is about slowing down to discover the real America–and the real America, in Cars, is made up of tourist traps and drive-ins. The connecting line that weaves through almost all the Pixar films, from Toy Story to Cars, is that we should respect the vintage merchandise as much as the new stuff. But by no means should we stop buying.

****

This week's trailers-in-brief: Remember when part of the appeal of Pixar was that their movies looked totally "new?" Before Cars, I saw trailers for five computer-animated kidflicks: Ant Bully, Barnyard, Open Season, Meet The Robinsons and Ratatouille. And the one that impressed me most was Ratatouille, the next Pixar feature. There were some laughs in the Barnyard trailer, and Disney's Meet The Robinsons has some snazzy design elements, but all four of the non-Pixar films–especially the loathsome-looking Open Season–relied on a speeded-up, choppy slapstick style that made them hard to literally comprehend, let alone laugh at. (There's a simple-in-concept sequence in the Open Season trailer where a bear gets slapped around by fish, but in execution, it looks positively cubist.) If Pixar has taught computer animators anything, it's that there's no use in designing cool stuff if you don't give the audience the time and space to look at it.

But the real problem with all these films is that they sport a distressing uniformity. Right about now, a good old hand-drawn cartoon would look like a sweetly amusing doodle in the margin of a long dot-matrix printout.


Next week: Fast And Furious? Garfield? The Lake House? Nacho Libre? For the first time this summer, my movie choice will be decided by the American public. Whatever the highest-grossing new movie is by Sunday, that's what I'll go see. (Frankly, I'm pulling for The Lake House, but if necessary, I'll pound down a Nacho.)