With Cars 2 approaching this weekend, I thought I’d take a look back at Cars, easily Pixar’s least impressive and celebrated film since their second picture, A Bug’s Life.
It’s easy to forget that although A Bug’s Life followed Pixar’s masterful debut Toy Story, it came before the astonishing string of superior successes—Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles—that catapulted Pixar into its own orbit as the unquestioned kings of family entertainment.
When Cars came out, it was seen as a slight, flawed Pixar effort, simply because Pixar had raised the bar so high. Six or seven years earlier, when studios could release cartoons like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Antz without being compared to the likes of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, a movie like Cars would have been judged far more leniently.
Conversely, A Bug’s Life wasn’t originally subjected to the same critical rigor as Cars—and reasonably so, since Pixar obviously grew in those early years. This, though, raises the question: Which is really Pixar’s least interesting effort to date: A Bug’s Life or Cars?
A ways back an online friend made a spirited case that A Bug’s Life is a better film than Cars:
- A Bug’s Life lifts its basic story from The Seven Samurai. Cars lifts its basic story from Doc Hollywood. Stealing art from museums has always been regarded as a higher class of crime than knocking over a 7-11.
- A Bug’s Life applied more creativity to its use of its source material than Cars did.
- A Bug’s Life is much the funnier and cleverer of the two. Watch the Flaming Death bit from A Bug’s Life and try to find anything half as funny in Cars.
- A Bug’s Life varies its supporting characters without simply making them into ethnic and regional stereotypes.
- Kevin Spacey as Hopper vs. Michael Keaton as Chick Hicks.
The bottom line for me is that I have a copy of A Bug’s Life, even if it has hit the DVD player very rarely, but I don’t have a copy of Cars.
Suffice to say, I disagree. Here’s why.
- Leading lady Bonnie Hunt > leading lady Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Even if you don’t accept that—and I can’t think why you wouldn’t—certainly Sally Carrera is a more engaging leading lady / romantic interest than Princess Atta. (Actually, A Bug’s Life has Bonnie Hunt too, but in a smaller part, not as leading lady. The calculus of Bonnie Hunt ( + Jenifer Lewis) vs. Julia Louis-Dreyfus ( + Bonnie Hunt) I leave as an exercise for the reader.)
- Cars reflects a real enthusiasm for its subject matter in a way that A Bug’s Life doesn’t. That is, Cars on cars > A Bug’s Life on bugs. The whole premise of A Bug’s Life, with grasshoppers terrorizing ants into providing for them, is entomologically stupid. Cars is vehicularly smart, engaging and classy.
- Where Cars achieves a measure of Toy Story’s success, and in a way even exceeds Toy Story, in discovering appropriate imaginative psychologies for its subjects as individuals, A Bug’s Life offers little if any insight—less so than DreamWorks’ Antz, even—into how ants, grasshoppers and other species would actually think and talk if they could. (I do like the early gag with the fallen leaf, but there’s precious little else in that vein.)
- Reinforcing the above point, the voice talent for Cars ideally embodies the personality and voice that each type of vehicle would have. The credits alone persuade you of their authoritative rightness: Paul Newman = Hudson Hornet, George Carlin = VW Bus, Larry the Cable Guy = a tow truck, Cheech Marin = an Impala Lowrider. By contrast, Kevin Spacey is great in A Bug’s Life, but he could just as easily be a praying mantis or a rhinoceros beetle. Etc.
- Cars is emotionally and thematically richer and more complex than A Bug’s Life. Even if its ideas about small towns and interstates are half-baked, it’s more thought-provoking than rallying the ants to beat the grasshoppers. And its lessons about respect for icons of the past and learning from the past is way more thoughtful than anything in A Bug’s Life.
- In particular, A Bug’s Life’s conventional climax is less satisfying than Cars’s unconventional climax. A Bug’s Life ends with the ants realizing that They Are Strong and banding together to drive off the bullies, while the evil Hopper is conveniently picked off by an avian act of God (because he has to die, but we don’t want the heroes killing him). Cars ends with the hero throwing the big race to his arch-competitor in order to honor a great champion. Better.
- A Bug’s Life gets credit for pioneering animated “outtakes,” but Cars has the funniest running end-credits gag in Pixar history.
Beyond that, not that I’m counting it in my list, but I have met people who count Cars as their favorite Pixar film. I’m not saying A Bug’s Life isn’t somebody’s favorite Pixar film, but I haven’t met them.
The bottom line for me is that while I do have a copy of A Bug’s Life, it’s an old VHS my mother-in-law bought for us, and neither I nor my kids have much interest in reviewing it. We own Cars on DVD, and while we watch it seldom, I’d sooner watch it again than A Bug’s Life.
For what it’s worth. (To find out where the debate went from there, visit Arts & Faith.)
Cars is Pixar’s most improbable success to date, a film that could easily have misfired, but somehow does not.
Pre-DecentFilms capsule review
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.