Continuing on my animation kick, today I finally watched Pixar’s Cars. This is only one of two films from the studio that I didn’t see in theaters, the second being Cars 2. The trailers didn’t impress nor the word of mouth. I never felt a hole in my heart for having missed the film, unlike the gaping pit in my stomach that plagued me until I finally watched Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. But here it was, playing on the Disney Channel and being stuck inside due to a hailstorm I had no excuse not to watch it.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a rookie sensation racecar. He somehow manages to place in a three-way tie with soon-to-be retired Strip “The King” Weathers and smug Chick Hicks in the Piston Cup. A tiebreaker race is scheduled for a few days later in California. But McQueen’s ego gets in the way and in attempt to reach the track early for more practice time, he ends up lost and abandoned. McQueen finds his way to Radiator Springs, a town on Route 66 that was lost on the map when the interstate was constructed nearby. McQueen is stuck there performing community service, but as hard as he tries to escape, the townsfolk try just as hard to keep him there (not in a creepy Misery way, but more like Bonnie’s toys in Toy Story 3).
It became obvious early on why this movie didn’t connect as well as previous Pixar films with audience and critics alike. It takes thirty minutes, all the way until the end of the first act, for an identifiable character to be introduced. McQueen is not the type of protagonist you want to cheer for in the beginning, but no other option is given until he finally speeds into town. So from the very start of the film, the movie is playing catch up in regards to winning over the audience.
McQueen remains stubborn through most of the film, leaving viewers empathy focused on secondary characters. Obviously tow truck Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, became a hit as he spawned his very own collection of short films. His version of cow tipping (in this case, tractor tipping) was one of the best and most humorous examples of paralleling anthropomorphic cars with our own world. Personally, I was a fan of Luigi and Guido, the two Italian tire men. Yes, over the top Italian accents are an easy way to get a chuckle, but the characters had heart, which is more than what you can say for McQueen.
What weren’t missing were references. The filmmakers incessantly threw in homage to the real world. Let me make a point here. Cars is the ONLY film, out of the entire Pixar feature film catalogue that does not feature humans. Even a Bug’s Life has a few moments where our species is acknowledged. But in Cars, humans never existed (and if they did, what the heck happened!). This is the films second biggest problem besides the failed first act. The world building is creepy with human made buildings, references to famous persons like Hendrix, but no signs of any two-legged creatures.
In fact, it seems that no fauna exist in this world. The only inconsistency to this was caused by Pixar’s desire to be self-referential with their inclusion of the birds from their short For the Birds. Then comes the cars’ design themselves. Unlike most cars come to life; the eyes are on the windshields and not the headlights (this is used as a plot point early on). Director John Lasseter chose to do this specifically because it made the cars look more human. This might be a stretch, but for characters that feature no other human qualities, Cars fell into uncanny valley for me.
Perhaps the setting assisted this. You are watching a world that very much could be our own, inhabited by creatures that attempt to be as human as possible with their use of tires as hands and fenders as mouths. Each car type is even associated with different stereotypical behavioral quirks present in our own society, such as the Volkswagen being a hippie and the Ferrari loving cars portrayed as Italians.
All that being said, despite the bumps in the road in trying to connect to a film that seems intent on reminding us that it is only a mirror to our own world with its constant use of parody creating distance with the viewer, Cars somehow pulls it through at the end with a Pixar staple: a heartwarming and even tear-jerking conclusion. The picture finally depends on true relatable emotion instead of inside jokes.
I still believe that Cars is the weakest Pixar movie to date (remember, I haven’t seen Cars 2), but keep in mind it is also the black sheep of their library of features. The visuals aren’t stellar, the first act is blah, and there is no real connection to the rest of the Pixar universe. Yet even a bad Pixar film is still a good movie and I can see why many viewers were still entertained.