A darling of a NASCAR-like racing circuit, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) dreams of the day he can soundly beat rival Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) to win fame and the treasured endorsement deals he craves. Traveling across Route 66 on his way to California for the important Piston Cup race, Lightning makes a critical error in judgment and ends up accidentally destroying the main street of forgotten town Radiator Springs. When the judge and town patriarch Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) sentences Lightning to repave the road, he finds both resentment (Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin) and enthusiastic help (Larry The Cable Guy, George Carlin) from the locals.

Pixar has mutated over the years into a brand name of excellence. You can’t argue with their box office track record, but I’ve always felt you could have a hearty debate on the actual quality of their films. Pixar often gets a free pass from audiences when it comes to screenwriting anemia simply because, hey, they make family films, so lay off! However, “Cars” is a picture with a level of lethargy and lack of resourcefulness that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a friendly film, but not a terribly engaging or memorable one.

Certainly the one component to a Pixar production that cannot be refuted is the crystalline beauty of the visuals. “Cars” is another step in the progression of the company as they get closer to photo-real animation while also retaining the all-important cartoon element. The world of cars presented here is stupendous in its detail and creativity, lending reality to a comical microcosm of automobiles who act and emote like humans. These characters glisten, rumble, and glide just like the real deal, and if the story can’t pull you in, there’s a colorful widescreen world to behold that’s astonishing.

And don’t even get me started on the landscape animation. When it’s not put to more broad use, it looks and feels like the real thing. You can almost smell the crisp air blowing slowly through the mountains as Lightning speeds his way to California. Outstanding.

Because “Cars” is such a richly animated film, it pains me to see the story not meet the same standard. Essentially, if you’ve seen one Pixar film, you’ve seen them all. Outside of interchangeable subjects (Toys! Bugs! Fish!), the scripting is always the same: Hero is comfortable, Hero is fallen, Hero learns lessons about himself, and Hero returns to save the day. “Cars” follows the template slavishly, even when the picture is undoubtedly bursting to do something more with itself. Actual fun is in suspiciously short supply here.

Beloved director John Lasseter (“Toy Story” and Pixar overlord) wearyingly leans on the formula to get him through the film, and the story continually grinds to a halt. “Cars” is a smaller scale picture to begin with, and clinging to this formula exacerbates the sludgy pace, especially when the script starts to mount subplots it can’t manage to fruition – most glaringly in the relationship between Lightning and the elder statesman Doc. While Doc is introduced as the Obi-Wan figure in Lightning’s life, Lasseter doesn’t do much to weave him into the younger car’s reason for growth. When it comes time to pay off the importance of their friendship, the magic is markedly absent.

The true test of Lasseter’s desperation to salvage some sense of merrimentr He employs fart noises to goose the gags, which has become the “shooting fish in a barrel” moment of any family film. Perhaps Pixar knew “Cars” wasn’t coming together amusingly enough if they’re stooping that low to get the kids on their side.

The NASCAR flavoring of the film is an interesting choice by Lasseter, a well-known car fanatic. While the sport has fans far and wide, it might also limit the potential audience for filmgoers who are turned off by all things Talladega, and wouldn’t know who Jeff Gordon was if he walked up and said, “Hey. I’m Jeff Gordon. I drive fast cars.”

“Cars” has lots of inside jokes (NPR’s indispensable “Car Talk” brothers show up as Lightning’s sponsors), NASCAR cameos, and general four-wheeled monkey business. The affection for vehicles certainly lends the film an identity, but also limits the entertainment value; there are only so many jokes you can make with automobiles. Thankfully, Lasseter gets one right: an Italian tire salesman who dreams of one day finding a Ferrari customer, and constantly frets over his business. Energetically voiced by Tony Shalhoub (with a full-on “mama-mia!” accent), he’s the one piece of the picture that’s legitimately funny and acts in unexpected comedic ways.

Lasseter should be handed a medal of honor for the ability to make Larry The Cable Guy actually endearing during “Cars,” but the whole enterprise is lacking critical invention and exhilaration to keep it revving forward. 2004’s dazzling “Incredibles” promised Pixar was growing up and willing to try new things. “Cars” is incontrovertible proof that promise was not kept.

Rating: C