Photo: Pixar Creative Services/Courtesy of Disney

In interviews, Pixar honcho and Cars co-director John Lasseter seems like a nice, nice man: His devotion to his colleagues and delight in the minutiae of Pixar’s animated worlds (“We sweat the details,” he says) are downright moving. It must be a lovely place to work. But when I saw the film, I couldn’t help thinking niceness can be a drag on an animator’s antic spirit. Cars revolves around Lightning McQueen, a hot-dog race car (with the voice of Owen Wilson) who thinks he can go it alone and who learns he needs other people (er, cars) and winning isn’t everything and are you yawning yet? Unlike Pixar’s Finding Nemo and The Incredibles—which were formula-driven but held up fun-house mirrors to real cultural anxieties like overprotective parenting and an inflexibly egalitarian education system—this one is dully conventional even by family-uplift standards. The details are sweated, all right: It’s a triumph of perspiration over inspiration.

The joke is that automobiles are sentient beings (there are no people), and it’s an okay one, even if it opens the door for Flintstones-style wincers (talk-show host Jay Limo, etc.). It also opens the door for terrible, NASCAR-worthy headbangers, only without the remote to lower the volume. The main action, though, takes place in a placid desert town called Radiator Springs, where Lightning ends up in jail en route to California for a big race. Forced to repair a stretch of blacktop he demolished, Lightning gradually loses his big-city egotism; he even—with the prodding of a crusty judge-mentor (Paul Newman) and a dishy Porsche (Bonnie Hunt)—comes to see the inner beauty of this “hillbilly hell” on Route 66, a cruel casualty of the superhighway.

Like the Toy Story films, Cars is a state-of-the-computer-art plea on behalf of outmoded, wholesome fifties technology, with a dash of Zen by way of George Lucas. (For all the hand-wringing over neglected mom-and-pop businesses, there’s nary a mention of the Wal-Marts and their ilk: No sense in offending the No. 1 vendors of Disney animated-movie tie-ins.) The cornball ending doesn’t have enough oomph, and the irascible-mentor shtick is deadly—or would be without the gravelly eminence of ex-racer Newman, whose lines were clearly crafted by fanboys. My favorite: “You drive like you fix the roads: Lousy.”

There are sparks of wit. The trucks snoozing at a truck stop are uncannily evocative of their real-life counterparts, and it’s hard to resist George Carlin as a stoner car who touts organic fuel made from hemp. The wobbling of the automobiles as they move catches something we register almost subliminally: that even steel has plasticity, its molecules always in motion. Pixar’s artists are awesomely attentive to physics. On the other hand, physics are what most people go to cartoons to escape.

Niceness also takes the edge off Patrick Creadon’s otherwise revitalizing documentary, Wordplay, a celebration of New York Times crossword-meister Will Shortz and the wonks who devise and solve his puzzles. A man so fixated on puzzles that he concocted his own college major (“enigmatology”—there’s a crossword word for you), Shortz comes across as amiable and somewhat estranged from the real world, and Creadon doesn’t get much below the surface. Or course, estrangement from the here and now is why many of us enter the Times crossword mazes to begin with. I love them because an answer I can’t divine after staring at a clue for 5, 15, 45 minutes will instantly leap into my head when I pick up the puzzle hours later. As Amy Ray of Indigo Girls puts it, solving a crossword gives you “a sense of faith that writer’s block is not really real.”

A professor says the ability to solve crosswords is testament to humans’ fluid intelligence, and Wordplay aims for intelligent fluidity. The transitions can make you laugh out loud—like the cut from former Times public editor Daniel Okrent griping that using a puzzle by grandmaster Merl Reagle on an easy-clue Tuesday is like using Barry Bonds in Little League … and then we see Bonds getting struck out by Mike Mussina and then Mussina in the dugout doing a Times crossword. Creadon follows one puzzle from Reagle’s kitchen to the desks of Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart, who boasts he’s so confident he can fill in the puzzle with … nah, I won’t spoil the dude’s joke.

It’s a shame Wordplay builds to one of those Spellbound-like competitions—at a yearly convention in Stamford, Connecticut—that aren’t especially illustrative of the ordinary crossword experience. But the regulars are an endearing lot: They make the spelling-bee nerds of Spellbound look like prom kings and queens.

Even James Toback seems oddly nice in Nicholas Jarecki’s delicious cult-of-personality documentary The Outsider, the story of a Dostoyevsky-worshipping highflier whose sex-and-gambling-obsessed movies are made with reckless bravado—loose scripts and lots of actorly self-plumbing. The film chronicles the twelve-day shoot of Toback’s enjoyably cheeky and semi-embarrassing sex drama When Will I Be Loved, with Neve Campbell screwing everyone in sight on the way to a sociopathic self-fulfillment that turns Toback on. The way he enthuses about his movies makes me wish I could watch them in the theater with his commentaries.

The title refers to Hollywood studios’ fear of Toback’s methods and madness, but the film also shows him to be the ultimate insider: a glad-hander of supermodels; a pal of superagents, superstars, and studio heads; and a Maileresque White Negro who hangs with rappers (and with Mailer, who gives Toback his seal of approval). Jarecki doesn’t get into Toback’s considerable inheritance, which does make maverickdom easier. And although we hear in general about Toback’s years of wildly compulsive behavior, specific anecdotes (I suspect there are doozies) would give The Outsider more of a filthy, Aristocrats-like charge. To cap it off, Toback’s friend Mike Tyson shows up and radiates niceness. The pair could star in a Pixar movie.

Hollywood’s summer 2006 is echoing Washington’s fall of 2004, when politicians ditched “soccer moms” for NASCAR dads. At pole position this year is Pixar’s Cars, followed by The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (which aims for the all-important import-car-show demographic) and Talladega Nights, in which Will Ferrell plays a stock-car driver sponsored by Wonder Bread. And just as in 2004, a culture war is brewing. To combat the big studios’ pro-car agenda, a powerful duo is emerging, in the form of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Chris Paine’s anti–GM jeremiad, Who Killed the Electric Car?

Directed by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft. Buena Cista. G.

Directed by Patrick Creadon. IFC Films. Not Rated.

The Outsider
Directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Green room Films. Not Rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.