Cars is Pixar’s most improbable success to date, a film that could easily have misfired, but somehow does not.
Directed by Pixar honcho John Lasseter, who helmed Pixar’s first three films (the brilliant Toy Story films and the lackluster A Bug’s Life) but hasn’t directed since, Cars ominously recalls some of the elements that made A Bug’s Life the most pedestrian and uninspired project in Pixar’s filmography. The total absence of human beings, for one thing. And a formulaic story of a threatened community pulling together to overcome adversity.
Happily, Cars is no A Bug’s Life. Offbeat and counter-intuitive, Cars finds a quirky creative groove and an emotional center that eluded the earlier Lasseter effort. The story of a callow young rookie racecar named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) whose rise to the top is sidetracked by an unplanned stopover in a sleepy time-forgotten town may be formulaic, and on first viewing the first forty minutes or so — especially to an automotive non-enthusiast like me — seems a bit shaky. But the film’s sense of time and place, its 1950s small-town nostalgia, its jaw-dropping visual beauty, and its love of cars, the open road and the American Southwest ultimately elevate Cars to a level of art and entertainment that continues to defy even the best efforts of Pixar’s competitors.
Perhaps the film’s biggest risk is creating a automotive parallel universe without drivers — a world in which fixtures of 20th-century Americana, from NASCAR racing to the forgotten towns and mom-and-pop shops of Route 66, exist independently of human beings or indeed any animal life forms. In this world, if you squint at the flies buzzing around light fixtures, they turn out to be little VW Bugs, and tractors stampede like cows — and are subject to nocturnal tipping by rural pranksters. Even buttes and cloud formations in the background reflect the film’s autocentric milieu, with fin-tail and hood-ornament shapes cropping up everywhere.
The absence of drivers is reflected, almost literally, in the character design of the cars themselves, specifically in the placement of the eyes. Animated anthropomorphic autos (e.g., Speed Buggy) often “see” with their headlights, but in a driverless world it would be odd to see through the windshield into the empty driver’s seat, and so the windshields in Cars are transformed into the whites of enormous conjoined eyes.
Why does the absence of humans matter? The non-human worlds of the Toy Story films and Monsters, Inc. provided an emotional point of entry for viewers precisely by imagining how toys and monsters would feel about us, thereby holding up a mirror to our feelings about them. Had Cars developed the automotive side of the driver–car relationship, that might have been an intriguing way of tapping into the great American love affair with the automobile; but the filmmakers haven’t gone that route.
Without drivers to care about, what motivates a vehicle? As you might expect, it’s the same things — or rather, the same range of things — that motivate their human counterparts.
Take Lightning McQueen, who has come out of nowhere to be a spoiler for the Piston Cup. Like any brash, callow up-and-coming young athlete feeling his oats, McQueen is hungry to topple the big guys at the top — and to enjoy the rewards of celebrity, notably a lucrative new endorsement deal with Dinoco Oil. (Dinoco, the name of the gas station where Woody and Buzz fell out of Andy’s mom’s car in Toy Story, is one of numerous Pixar in-jokes.) Arrogant and self-centered, McQueen isn’t exactly a team player, and has little loyalty either toward his pit crew or his slightly stodgy current sponsor, Rust-eze, with its unglamorous clientele.
There’s also McQueen’s competition: classy reigning champ The King (voiced by racing icon Richard Petty), a 1970 Plymouth Superbird who’d like to retire in a (hopefully metaphorical) blaze of glory; and The King’s longtime rival, perennial runner-up Hick Chicks (Michael Keaton), who’s even more obnoxious than McQueen. Off the track, McQueen’s easygoing transport bigrig Mack (Pixar veteran John Ratzenberger) is content to haul the sporty racecar from race to race, and may be the closest thing McQueen has to a friend.
However, contrary to McQueen’s expectations, the most significant chapter in his life — and the heart of the film — takes place not on the racetrack or in the spotlight, but far from the beaten path of the Interstate, in the one-light town of Radiator Springs in Carburetor County. Once a prosperous rural community on the Route 66 thoroughfare from Illinois to California, Radiator Springs shared the decline of many similar towns that were bypassed by the new Interstate system.
For McQueen, Radiator Springs is the capital of nowheresville. He wants nothing to do with it or locals like gruff, no-nonsense Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), Mater the tow truck (comedian Larry the Cable Guy), and the businesslike Sheriff (Route 66 historian Michael Wallis), although he may make an exception for a sweet little Porsche named Sally (Bonnie Hunt). Of course circumstances contrive to keep him in town, and of course McQueen slowly learns that he’s misjudged the town and its inhabitants, not least Doc Hudson, as in Hudson Hornet, of 1950s stock-car fame.
The plot elements are familiar and somewhat corny, most overtly resembling the 1991 Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood. But Cars has a specificity that goes beyond the lip service to small-town values typical to such films. It’s a heartfelt elegy to a lost culture, an almost mythic part of America’s past.
The Eisenhower-era nostalgia may be heartfelt, but it’s not entirely convincing. After all, it was Eisenhower who signed the Interstate Highway Act that doomed Route 66 and its small-town culture. Cars romanticizes the local feeling of a road that turned and wound “with the land” rather than cutting across it — conveniently overlooking the fact that those turns and bends cost lives, earning sections of the highway the moniker “Bloody 66.”
By contrast, the Interstate is disparagingly said to save drivers only “ten minutes of driving time,” but multiply the number of drivers per year by the time and fuel saved, and the benefit seems appreciable. Painful as it may be to watch communities decline, the answer, if there is one, isn’t not building better roads.
If Cars is heavy on hooey, it’s also genuinely endearing. The story is polished to a faretheewell, and the filmmakers have a few surprises up their sleeves. Refreshingly, neither of the big races that bookend the film ends the way formula would dictate. Cars doesn’t just mouth the platitude that winning isn’t everything; respect, dignity and loyalty are really honored above finishing first.
Mater the tow truck (Tow Mater, get it?) is funny and sweetly personable, and Newman’s Doc Hudson has real dignity and quiet authority. And, while praising the visuals in CG cartoons has become commonplace, Pixar’s work here goes beyond eye-popping realism into stunning beauty. This isn’t just technique, it’s art. The sprawling landscapes in Cars are even more gorgeous than the colorful coral-reef vistas of Finding Nemo, and that’s saying something.
Is Cars a disappointment? Only Pixar’s enviable track record could make it seem so. Compared to even the better efforts of their competition (e.g., Over the Hedge, Robots), Cars is firing on all cylinders, and then some.
For what it’s worth, no matter how consistently brilliant Pixar has been, I find that I never come to expect the next Pixar film to meet the same standard. Going into Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, I rather doubted each time that the film I was about to see would live up to their predecessors, and I was pleasantly dumbfounded each time to find my expectations exceeded. Cars doesn’t exceed expectations, but it continues the winningest streak in Hollywood history with a film that any other creative team in Hollywood would kill to have be the weakest of their last five films.
P.S. Whatever you do, don’t miss the end-credit outtakes, which include the funniest end-reel gag in Pixar history, as the cars go to a drive-in and watch excerpts from a number of films that seem awfully familiar.
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.
Pre-DecentFilms capsule review
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.