One fun thing about summer is that the studios release what they think are their best films, at least in the lightweight, entertainment genre. Here are three of the early contenders.

CarsI was expecting to admire this film more than to like it. I'm not a NASCAR kind of person, although I certainly know and admire some who are. Cars are just not my thing, except as a mode of transportation, in which case comfort and gas mileage are my top qualifications.

So imagine my surprise when I found that this film is touching, featuring characters that feel real, like people I've known in my life. Most animated films shout at you from beginning to end, as if daring the children to look away. But "Cars" trusts its characters and its plot enough to slow down and reflect, just when most kids' films turn up the volume and the speed.

"Cars" opens and closes with big races, so there is plenty of action and noise, and yet the plot and characterizations are almost like a small independent film trapped in an animated summer blockbuster. Like most kids' fare, it announces its plot in banner headlines: Main character is a stuck-up loner, only interested in winning! Must learn to play well with others! And yet, the road the story takes to get there is full of surprises. It's not cynical nor is it constantly snappy and full of one-liners. It's a sweet, revealing, enjoyable film

Perhaps because of that, the 11-year-old boys with whom I saw it liked "Over the Hedge" (see review below) better. "It was funnier," said Tyler. The girls called it an even race. But all of them agreed they enjoyed the film and would never look at cars the same way again.

So if you take kids with you to see "Cars," they're sure to have a good time. But don't feel that you need to have any youngsters along as an excuse. Adults who know—or know of—songs like "Route 66" and "Life Can Be a Dream" will find a pleasant surprise waiting just off this highway.

Oh, and stay for the credits. Then explain the joke to the kids.

Over the Hedge
Over The Hedge"Over the Hedge" is indeed one of those animated films that shouts at you from beginning to end (see review above). So whether you'll like it or not depends on whether you're in the mood for a 90-minute harangue about our consumer culture, with special diatribes against junk food, suburbia, and loud, irritating realtors, all delivered by my favorite creatures, talking animals.

In many ways, this is one of the better talking animal films of the year so far (yikes). The plot is nonsense (the main character, a raccoon, has to replace a stash he stole from a no-longer-sleeping bear, item by item) but at least it has some internal logic. Said raccoon, due to his looming deadline, tricks a group of mismatched woodland creatures into helping him replace the bear's stuff from a development that apparently grew up over one winter's hibernation.

The variety of kids I took to see this one all enjoyed it. I kept trying to figure out why I didn't. I suppose the answer came clear when I saw "Cars": "Over the Hedge" is a good entry in a genre, but the genre is cynical and loud, and the characters all sound one note throughout the story. There's the dumb one, the scheming one, the insecure one, etc. (And if I were black, I would question why all the animals I voice had to have "attitude.")

To its credit, although the main two animals are male, the entire suburb is populated by women and children, the men off working in some mythical city, perhaps. But while the film's message was a feel-good "family is important, join ours," the feeling I left with was that we humans are selfish abusers of nature. There doesn't seem to be much hope offered for us; the best the animals can do is escape.

All that said, the voices are supplied by talented actors; the animation is great. See it if you must.

Just My Luck
Just My LuckSeeing "Just My Luck"--starring the ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan--made me wonder how Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn or Rock Hudson and Doris Day used to pull off silly romantic comedies/fairy tales like this. The plot almost sounds like an old-time screwball: lucky girl kisses unlucky boy and their fortunes reverse. Unlucky girl must then find mystery boy to kiss him again and retrieve her old fortunes.

The answer is, first, the scripts back then seemed light and airy, but there really was some substance to them; the characters were shaded and had some internal backbone to come from. And they starred actors who knew how to be enchanting, not just perky. "Just My Luck," on the other hand, is all frosting and no cake. There's nothing objectionable in the film--if it's out on DVD and the kids are bored on a rainy day, why not? But even kids will sense something is missing from it.

As a mom, I give Ms. Lohan credit for not doing the Britney-thing and broadcasting her grown-up sexuality to flip her career from juvenile to young leading lady. She does have talent, and she doesn't need to do that. If she trusts herself enough to slow down and accept fewer films (and party invitations), her career might be longer and more satisfying for both her and us. Hey, I wonder if she's seen "Cars"?

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