Anthropomorphism is risky business in a world where the average 6-year-old thinks cute is for the birds. And as the makers of Herbie Fully Loaded learned to their cost, darling little talking cars are, like, totally yesterday. It’s a trap John Lasseter and his army of animators studiously avoid with Cars, the hotly anticipated new confection from the red-hot Pixar box of tricks. There’s next to no mugging in Cars, no sucking up to audiences tall or small. Old or new, the automobiles look like cars that just happen to talk. Their eyes are windshields, not the more obvious headlights; their mouths come somewhere near their bumpers; their wheels do much of the emoting; and they look like, well, cars. Amusingly voiced by actors and car-racing luminaries, they also talk like normal human beings, perhaps too much so — the dialogue, which is ominously credited to a whole raft of writers, went way over the heads of the two 8-year-olds I had in tow. Still, this appealing movie is Lasseter’s warmly nostalgic vision for his own car-crazy California childhood, when his family regularly rode Route 66 before the Interstate rudely interrupted and made ghost towns out of the small outposts that once serviced highway drivers.

Like most children’s movies today, Cars cheerfully hitches cutting-edge animation to a folksy narrative plugging friendship, community and a Luddite mistrust of high tech. Here, the bogeyman is the wild and woolly world of NASCAR-style auto racing, where promising rookie race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has lost all sense of self, save for a ravenous hunger to win and leave behind his rusty roots. En route to California with a flotilla of publicists and merchandising hucksters to compete in the high-stakes Piston Cup championship, Lightning finds himself marooned in Radiator Springs, a burned-out shell of a town peopled by stalwart local vehicles and refugees from life in the Los Angeles rat race. There, of course, the sulky little fellow will learn the true meaning of friendship and cooperation from a buck-toothed old tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and a former Piston champion fallen on hard times (Paul Newman); fall in love with a spunky blue Porsche (Bonnie Hunt); and repave paradise with the aid of a funky old asphalting contraption straight out of Miyazaki.

Exciting though the car-racing scenes are, with their millions of fan-cars swaying fluidly around the stadium, it’s the drives through the canyons and passes, and the quiet old ruin of a town (which recalls the abandoned mall in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away), that truly quicken the pulse. Like the Japanese master, Lasseter yearns unabashedly for an older, simpler life, even if old here means the neon era, gorgeously evoked when Lightning gives back to the community that gave him back his humanity. Coming from a corporation that wrote the book on publicity, merchandising and general wheeler-dealing, this may be a load of hogwash. But it’s hogwash made by a genuine enthusiast. When, in the climactic race Lightning does something to drive home the well-worn kid-pic saw that friendship counts more than winning — and the crowd goes wild — it hardly seems to matter that, in the real world of car racing, they’d have torn him hood from chassis.

CARS | Directed by JOHN LASSETER and JOE RANFT | Written by DAN FOGELMAN, LASSETER, RANFT, KIEL MURRAY, PHIL LOREN and JORGEN KLUBIEN | Produced by DARLA K. ANDERSON | Released by Walt Disney Pictures | Citywide

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