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"Cars" officially rolled out at Tuesday night's ShoWest event

"Cars" officially rolled out at Tuesday night's ShoWest event

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There's a saying that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.  It's my full intention to break that rule as I tell you that -- on Tuesday night -- Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former head of the Walt Disney Studios and current CEO of DreamWorks Animation, was in the audience for the first public screening of "Cars." Now there's no need to be like the acid-tripped VW van in the movie thinking it's a big conspiracy, with the head of one animation studio spying on the big summer film of another. Most likely, Jeff was there to pay tribute, as were we all, to Pixar's John Lasseter, as he was awarded ShoWest's first Pioneer of Animation award.

The event began with the heads of three of the largest exhibitors in the US, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, introducing John. Lasseter was then escorted on to stage by two lovely models (who would later be go-go dancing around a racecar at the after-party. This is Vegas, after all) dressed in black racing outfits akin to Lindsey Lohan's costume in "Herbie: Fully Loaded." John recalled being a teenager in Southern California, where his father worked for a Chevy dealership. He would spend the summer working with his dad in the parts department and where there formulated his love for the classic cars of the 50's and 60's.

Photo by Joe Kleiman

Later on, after working diligently at Pixar year after year & raising four children along the way, Lasseter's wife, Nancy, told him that -- if he didn't take a break -- John would miss his children growing up and then they'd be off to college. So Lasseter rented an RV and -- with family in tow -- went from the Pacific to the Atlantic and back in two months. Although he had thought his family would be at each other's throats, he discovered the trip brought them closer together. And the genesis of "Cars" story was conceived. John accepted the award, mentioning how he had been given a new filmmaker of the year award a decade earlier for "Toy Story." "I still have a long way to go," he said.

As the show began, I realized that Pixar's animation technology has become unparalleled in the industry. Knives flew across the kitchen floor as the rat ran for the door with a brick of cheese ...

I'm sorry. I got a bit excited there. Before the film even began, we were treated to both the trailer for Pixar's next film, "Ratatouille" (Which is about a Parisian rat who wants to live the high life) and the Oscar-nominated short, "One Man Band." As Lasseter mentioned before the film began, for every Pixar feature that's produced, there's also be a short. Both "One Man Band" and the "Ratatouille" trailer were laugh-a-minute numbers, showcasing Pixar animators and gagmen at their finest.

Photo by Joe Kleiman

Cars, like all Pixar films, is full of in-jokes from the very beginning. The first one was the Lightyear blimp soaring over the stadium where the lead character, Lightning McQueen was about to race for the Piston Cup. Later in the film, a biplane is flown by someone who looks conspicuously like Andre, the star of Pixar's first animated short, "The Adventures of Andre and Wallie B.," produced a decade ago. The casting plays on pop and car culture as well. A number of characters are voiced by actual race drivers, McQueen's sponsors are voiced by Ray and Tom Magliozzi of NPR's "Car Talk." In a stroke of genius, McQueen's agent Harv is played (off-screen, as he's never seen) by Jeremy Piven. Who plays movie agent Ari Gold on HBO's hit TV show "Entourage."

Cars, in terms of character animation, art direction, and story is Pixar at its finest. The animation is absolutely incredible. When close up, backgrounds are realistic. At a distance, they take on the air of an old 1940's painted postcard of southwestern vistas. The characters (I.E. All cars and aircraft) look like the Micro Machines line of toy cars from the 1980's, but with fine detailing and texture. As for the story, the late Joe Ranft, to whom this film is dedicated, has been given on-screen credit as co-director with Lasseter, and the film shows why. Equal parts humor - there's references to everything from the anti-establishment disobedience of the 1960's to newer pop culture standards like "The Fast and the Furious" - and tenderness, the packed house openly combined laughter with tears. During a very touching scene about how the Interstate Highway system decimated towns along Route 66, there was barely a dry eye in the house. You heard me right. Looking around, I could see grown men sobbing (though I'm a bit modest to admit to anything myself). The scene was reminiscent and on a par with the scene where Jessie is thrown away in "Toy Story 2."

Photo by Joe Kleiman

If you're a fan of bloopers at the end of Pixar films, you're in for a surprise. Instead of bloopers, we get almost a full five minutes of added scenes, including a hilarious tribute to John Ratzenberger's roles in each of the Pixar films, with each of the films reanimated using cars as actors.

After the film, Disney threw a huge party in one of the Paris' hotel's ballrooms, complete with vintage autos, roadside barbeque, and a band performing cruising standards.

This is such a multilayered film that ultimately I can only make one recommendation on the film: If you can only see one film this summer, go see "Cars." If you can see two films, go see "Cars" twice.

As one exhibitor sitting next to me said: "Not only might this be the biggest film of the summer, but this is the best CARtoon ever." I have to agree.

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