Cars (2006) by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft
Retro Review by John McAmis
For the past eleven years, I have gotten a lot of flack for placing Cars in the upper echelon of Pixar’s filmography. Typically, it’s Wall-E, UP, Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc., Toy Story, Toy Story 3, and Inside Out. This is all fine and good with me, too, but I typically rank Ratatouille, Toy Story 2, and Cars in this tier as well. Most people don’t like this. Most people say, “Cars is dumb. What’s with this world? Where are the humans? How did the cars obtain sentience? Why are there door handles?!” and I get frustrated with these questions. They’re picky. They’re irrelevant to the story being told. They’re the type of questions asked by people who believe themselves to be smarter than the filmmakers, who spent five years on the picture. I don’t have any answers for these questions, nor do I seek them. Due to the film’s animation, design, and voice cast, I have only a undying love for this odd, clunky 2006 animated film.
Cars tells the story of the hotshot rookie race car Lighting McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his desire to win the Piston Cup — the biggest race of the year. After a three-way tie for the Cup, another race is scheduled to occur in California to decide the winner. This means the racers and their teams must travel across the country to California to race in Los Angeles. On the way to California, Mack, McQueen’s driver voiced by John Ratzenberger, succumbs to driving fatigue, and a glitch with his trailer causes McQueen to be stranded in the middle of the desert. He follows the famous Route 66 to small town Radiator Springs, where he gets into a lot of antics and learns about the old ways of traveling and the enjoyment cars used to receive from just cruising, not driving for sport or fame or money. Eventually, McQueen pays his debt to the small town and ends up in Los Angeles to finish the championship.
Most people seem to recoil from Cars because the plot of the film revolves around auto racing, specially NASCAR-style stock car racing. Growing up in Tennessee, NASCAR was always around me. I never understood the sport — even now I hesitate to use the word sport. Are the drivers now athletes? Or are the cars the athletic ones? This is where Cars becomes intriguing to me. It made something alien seem familiar, even though I had been around NASCAR fans and the culture all my life. This is one of the most significant strengths of the film, and one that I think most people overlook.
The story, in the long run, is not Pixar’s strongest. But because of Pixar’s creative culture and their drive to really find the best way to tell a story, even their weaker films outshine most of the other animation studios’ efforts. Cars is not Minions. But it’s also not Finding Nemo, Monster’s, Inc., or Wall-E. So why would I place it in the top tier of the studio’s filmography? It seems too obvious to state, but it’s the animation. Professional film critics, Academy of Arts and Sciences voters, and amateur film bloggers do not know how to judge animated films. It’s a frustrating fact, especially for someone like me who is trying to break into this industry and build a career. Professionals in the film industry who have never set foot in an animation studio, nor taken the half hour to watch a DVD extra that explains the animated filmmaking process, forget the most fundamental part of animated film production: the animation.
The animation in Cars is spectacular. To give life to a stoic, two ton machine full of gears and spark plugs and belts and fluids is a feat, and no one has ever done it like Pixar. First and foremost, and this relates to the design of the film, the eyes of the cars have been moved from their cliche caricatured position at the headlights to the windshield. This makes absolute sense — humans see the road through the windshield, so the anthropomorphized vehicles ought to as well. Secondly, the tires now become hands and feet. This, too, makes a lot of sense. Just as one of Milt Kahl’s tigers walks on all fours in The Jungle Book, so should these characters in this animated feature. And it’s not just that Pixar has deemed the tires to be the hands and feet of the characters, it’s also the way the tires are animated that makes the allusion so compelling to watch. Each little flick of the tire when Lighting McQueen is talking is full of confidence, stubbornness, and youthful energy. Doc Hudson, on the other hand, rarely lifts his wheels off the ground. He’s old, patient, and very calculated in his movements and the way he drives. These tires aren’t just circular pieces of rubber, but an amazing opportunity for the animators to really show character and personality.
Going along with the design of the cars and the eyes being placed on the windshield, the film as a whole is very intelligently thought-out. The way this world has been laid out for these characters is really exciting. The ramps, the rest stops, the traffic lights — we humans use all theses things when we drive in reality, but Pixar took it further and put ramps everywhere. They have streetlights all over the place. Even nature is automobile related. In Radiator Springs, there’s Cadillac Range where the mountains resemble the iconic tail fins of 1950s cars. Little insects look like Volkswagen Beatles and leave small tire tracks on windows when they land. The design of the film is really fun and intriguing to look at, especially on each additional viewing. Moreover, the Art of Cars is a really fun book to have to see all the cars-related designs that didn’t make it into the world.
The cast for the feature is also very, very strong. Taking its Southern inspiration to heart, John Lasseter and company casted many actors with strong, yet appealing Southern accents. Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, and other supporting characters. (Newman was born in Ohio, but in the film he adopts a charming voice for Doc Hudson). Some viewers say Larry the Cable Guy’s voice gets under their skin and becomes pretty annoying throughout the picture. I think that’s fair. His acting is the most caricatured and stereotypically Southern in the film, and this can be pretty off-putting, even to people below the Mason-Dixon line. His character, however, is one of the most lovable and hospitable in the film, being kind to the stranger Lighting McQueen when the famous race car is stranded in Radiator Springs. Mater is the stereotypical Southern truck, but he’s got a kind heart and displays those warm Southern qualities, too.
For all that Cars does right, it certainly does things wrong as well. The script isn’t very nuanced and the dialogue is predictable. Because it’s a Disney film (an actual Disney film since they bought Pixar the year Cars was released), you know Lighting McQueen will come out on top and friendship and happiness and good natured feelings reign supreme. Good triumphs over evil and bullies are put in their place. The story drags in the middle and becomes somewhat heavy-handed in its stance on American infrastructure and the ugliness of the Interstate system. All this to say, I think Cars is a fine feature from Pixar and certainly one to give another chance. There’s a nice amount of automobile and American history embedded in the picture, giving people nostalgia for the days of cruising Route 66. For lovers of design, specifically automobile design, the film is packed with gorgeous vehicles and many jokes that car enthusiasts will understand. I really do love this film, even with its setbacks and familiar story. Viewers really need to look at Cars closely to discover its charms and its strengths, but they’re impossible to forget once you realize how smart and complex the animation and design is for this middle-of-the-road Pixar feature.