Cars may be low on gas, but it deserves more credit than its reputation may suggest. Pixar was on a major winning streak with its first 6 movies. All that changed when Cars came driving in. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but it lost to the dancing penguin movie. Cars asks the question, what if there was a world of living vehicles? Even at 11 years old I had to question how childish the idea sounded. I liked cars as much as the next kid, but I mostly went to see it out of obligation to Pixar. The concept wasn’t entirely new. Since there had been anthropomorphic animated cars in the past. The biggest difference was putting their eyes on the windshield instead of the headlights.
Not to mention how suspiciously similar its story was to the 80’s film Doc Hollywood. Despite how the idea sounded, Pixar head John Lasseter was passionate about the project. Since he was a car enthusiast who was inspired by the famous highway Route 66. After putting so much work into human characters for The Incredibles, Cars featured no humans whatsoever. It may seem like a downgrade, but people forget how beautiful the computer animation in Cars is. Just like they forget that the story is still teaching a sincere lesson. Cars may be a lesser effort from Disney & Pixar, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining or nostalgic…
Cars is shown ahead of the short One Man Band. A spirited musical competition between French street performers competing for a girl’s gold coin. After giving toys, bugs, monsters, fish, and superheroes emotions, Pixar was tasked with bringing life to emotionless hunks of metal. I know people can be sentimental about cars, but it’s not exactly the same as Toy Story. Cars is about… cars that have faces and live in a world that’s not too dissimilar from our own. Except that everything is built like a car stop where garages are houses, gas stations are diners, and NASCAR is a major sporting event. Clouds have tire treads and bugs are cars for some reason. The thought of an all car world opens up a lot of questions. Like how anything can be picked up with tires? Especially when you factor in trucks, planes, trains, boats, and other vehicles that are shown to be alive. It’s better not to think about it too hard.
The animation may only be for cars, but that doesn’t make the metallic sheen, reflections, and weight any less impressive. Not to mention the landscapes that are seen on the road. I’m still not much of a sports guy and I’ve never got into NASCAR, but the idea of following an athletic race car is a clever one. Lightning McQueen is a self absorbed rookie race car who loves attention and working alone. His red paint job is eye catching and his catchphrases are memorable. From “Speed, I am speed” to “Kachow!” Owen Wilson’s distinct voice is well suited for a race car. Lightning’s biggest competition is longtime racer Strip “The King” Weathers voiced by real life driver Richard Petty. In fact, several figures from the racing world make voice cameos alongside the mostly respectable cast. Even Jay Leno shows up as Jay Limo and not Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a Humvee. Get used to the car puns, because there’s a lot of those. Along with some surprisingly risque jokes.
Lightning’s other competition is Chick Hicks. The obnoxious main villain willing to cheat in order to win the race. A fitting race car for Michael Keaton. When the first race is too close to call, Lighting loses his entire pit crew except for his loyal semi-truck driver Mack. Another more prominent character for John Ratzenberger to voice. A living Pizza Planet truck can be seen in a crowd shot. Lightning wants nothing more than to be famous and be sponsored by the Dinoco gas company from Toy Story. McQueen’s arrogance gets him lost on the highway after four pimpmobiles mess with Mack. Lightning follows the wrong truck and inadvertently wrecks the hidden little community of Radiator Springs. The rundown town itself doesn’t exist, but it is based on places that exist on Route 66.
Radiator Springs is filled with all kinds of colorful car characters of all makes and models. Mater is the most tolerable Pixar sidekick. Even if Larry the Cable Guy is basically doing his hillbilly standup routine, Mater still get some of the best jokes. Mater is a rusty tow truck who forms another of Pixar’s core unlikely buddy duos. Since Lightning is a sleek race car who wants to get away from his Rust-eze sponsors. Their friendship isn’t exactly deep, but they do have some nice bonding moments. Like tipping tractor cows, avoiding a bull combine, and learning to drive backwards. Mater also mentions a ghostlight, but more of that can be seen in the tie-in short Mater and the Ghostlight.
The town’s old fashioned judge Doc Hudson orders Lightning out, but his mind is changed and he instead has him fix the road he destroyed. Paul Newman very appropriately voices Doc. Secretly a famous race car winner of 3 Piston Cups who’s left his old life behind after a fateful crash. He comes around later on and even teaches Lightning how to turn on dirt after challenging him to a race. Lightning’s main love interest is town attorney who runs a Cozy Cone motel Sally Carrera. A Porsche who teaches Lightning how to slow down and enjoy life. Sally is Bonnie Hunt’s biggest Pixar role to date and the main source of heart in the movie. The closest thing to a tear worthy moment is Sally reminiscing on what the town used to look like before the Interstate came along. Lightning comes to love the town himself and it makes him a better car because of it.
Other Radiator Springs residents include old fashioned police car Sheriff. 50’s Motorama Flo voiced by Jenifer Lewis, who runs a 50’s gas diner. Her lowrider detailer boyfriend Ramone who could only be voiced by the hispanic Cheech Marin. Hippie VW Bus Filmore and military surplus Jeep Sarge with the voices of George Carlin and Paul Dooley respectively. Tony Shalhoub as Italian Fiat 500 tire shop owner and Ferrari enthusiast Luigi. Who’s partnered with his aspiring pitstop forklift Guido. There’s also delusional curio owner 20’s Ford Model T. Lizzie and kind hearted old fashioned fire truck Red. Voiced by the late animator Joe Ranft. Who sadly passed away in a car accident before Cars was completed. After helping to restore the town, reality sets in when the press discovers where Lightning is.
McQueen’s life changing journey begins to affect his performance, but Doc & company show up in California to act as his pit crew. The final race is a high octane climax that gives Lightning a chance to show off what Radiator Springs has taught him. The race ends tragically for Strip when Chick cheats, but Lightning stops short of the finish line. Choosing instead to push Strip across the finish line. I’m not crazy about sports movies that end in loss, but I get what they’re trying to say here. Chick wins the cup and is promptly booed off stage. In the end, Lightning turns down Dinoco’s generous offer, but honors his agreement to let Mater fly in a fancy helicopter.
An extended credits sequence then shows Radiator Springs thriving again. With multiple comical afterthoughts centered around the town. Including a funny meta joke about all the characters John Ratzenberger has voiced for Pixar up to that point. As shown in car themed movie parodies of Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and A Bug’s Life. Followed by an after-credits scene about the increasingly lost couple Minny and Van. Randy Newman returns to score Cars, but it’s really songs like “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and “Life is a Highway” that stand out the most. Cars became an immediate financial giant for Pixar. Toy commercials were everywhere and I don’t blame them for seeing the potential in the car universe. Cars fits Pixar’s formula and comes close enough to the finish line to succeed.
Followed by: Cars 2