Looking back on… Cars

Cars (2006)
Directed by: John Lasseter and Joe Ranfit

Starring: Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy
Written by Leslie
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Before Pixar’s seventh full-length feature; ‘Cars’, the film company was so influential that you’d hear parents state they’d be going to see the new Pixar film, even if it wasn’t. Much like “playing Nintendo” was a coverall for video gaming with the early 90’s, “going to see the new Pixar” became a term during the companies’ golden streak from 1996 until 2006 when ‘Cars’ was released. 2006 was a defining and divisive year for Pixar. It was the year Disney acquired the company fully as opposed to merely distributing their films.

Since then, we’ve seen a rise in the number of sequels Pixar produce. Meanwhile, the quality that people equate to Pixar has become a mixed bag.  Post-2006 Pixar has given us some of its most emotive work (‘Up’, ‘Inside Out’), and also yielded some of its weakest feature entries. After another small golden run of widely considered modern classics, starting with ‘Ratatouille’ (2007) and ending with ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010), The company had a run of middling features (‘Cars 2’, ‘Brave’, ‘Monsters University’) which only ended upon the acclaimed release of ‘Inside Out’ (2015). The release of 2016’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ was less fruitful. While it hasn’t been rated as weakly as ‘Cars 2’ (IMDB rating: 6.3/10, Metacritic Rating: 57/100, Rotten Tomatoes: 39%), It lounges at the bottom of the studios Box Office takings. The tipping point from a studio who could do little wrong, to a film company which has had a few scuff marks on its surface, seems to come from ‘Cars’. Part sports adventure movie, part nostalgic road movie, John Lasseter’s fourth Pixar project as director is a personal and often enjoyable feature. But it’s also a film which fights to make its universe of anthropomorphic vehicles come alive, and holds little of the verve of previous entries. 

Rookie Racer; Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson), has enjoyed an incredibly successful first season competing in the Piston Cup, although his narrow-minded arrogance has left him bereft of a pit crew and a desire to leave his un-glamorous but loyal Rust-Eze sponsorship. While on his way to a tiebreaker race in California to decide the winner of the Piston Cup, McQueen finds himself waylaid in the small town of Radiator Springs.

After being arrested and compounded for a misdemeanour, the towns local lawyer, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) advises the Town Judge; Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) that McQueen should be given Community Service and repave the town’s main road. While reluctant at first, his sentence allows him to get to know the locals a little more and possibly learn more about the ideals of friendship.

The Doc Hollywood-lite narrative of ‘Cars’ helps establish the films subtext; it’s nostalgia for small town America. McQueen is a flashy race car who lives his life way too fast for the inhabitants of Radiator Springs. Something that we in the world of two-legged humans only know too well. Lasseter is a well-known auto-gearhead and the cute vehicles more than show this, but the real main thrust of ‘Cars’ is the film’s view of a certain brand of Americana diminishing. In ‘Cars’, Radiator Springs was a town which benefited from people using Route 66. They would stop by a sample the town and its quirks. However, the construction of Interstate 40 made sure the town became pretty much forgotten.

When looked at, the realms of the movie, the fuzzy message of small towns and friendship in ‘Cars’ is a cute one. It is difficult however to get past the fact that ‘Cars’ came at a time in which Pixar effectively become part of the interstate. Even more so than when they were independently funded with the help of one Steve Jobs.  It’s a strange dichotomy made more apparent because while the relationships in ‘Cars’ are light and cute, they’re not as sharp and memorable as the toys of ‘Toy Story’ (1995) or the camaraderie between Sulley and Mike in ‘Monsters, Inc.’

There is something to be said however about ‘Cars’ preempting the economic crash of 2008. The quirky inhabitants of Radiator Springs, who embrace the simpler pleasures of Tractor tipping were ignored by the on-going march of progress. It’s fascinating to see a children’s film have one foot in the future. It’s been noticed in the rise of Donald Trump for instance, that the small town little man has been brushed aside and forgotten about since the economic downturn. Suddenly the push for progress is only for the elitist Lightening McQueens, who are quick to forget what gave them their big break. In one of the films pivotal scenes, Sally shows Lightening wide open vistas that those who use the interstate ignore. “I fell in Love with this!” She exclaims. Hinting that those who are holed up in cities simply see none of the real America. Indeed, Sally’s backstory, in which we discover that she was a big city lawyer before she ended up in Radiator Springs, only helps compound the viewpoint. 

The same can almost be said for a few of the film writers who observed ‘Cars’ the first time around. The films long running time, yet thinly spread narrative will not do many favours for adults, but, why should it? As much as Pixar can cater to adult audiences, it’s still important to recognise that the main target audience is still children. That certainly helps explains the attractiveness of the film’s merchandise, which grossed into the billions.    

Despite throwing an amount of shade at ‘Cars’ misty eyed subtext, there’s a solid amount to enjoy in the film itself. ‘Cars’ is ten years old and its technical aspects are still wonderfully sleek. It’s not a film of memorable set pieces, but the film’s opening segment still pops, as does Pixar’s wonderful use of light and texture rendering. The glistening polish of the car bodies to the neon glow of the night time signage is still very impressive. The films finer points were still the sort of things that had Pixar way ahead of the competition. Lasseter’s decision to have the cars eyes on the windshield rather than the headlights made the characters far more affable in their approach. Plus, for a film which is light on its story, the animation has heft, these are weighty characters which all have a different feel to them, and it’s not just down to the voice acting.

While some of the film’s gags may not have aged as well (Twins “exposing their headlights?” Sally having a Tramp Stamp tattoo?), the cast performances are still highly enjoyable. Both Owen Wilson and Bonnie Hunt are charming in their roles and it’s easy to see why the dopey Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) became a kid’s favourite. These aren’t the best characters Pixar have to offer, but they’re still watchable.

‘Cars’ provides a handy illustration of Pixar were at the time. It was a point when their stock was high and there was a belief that they could do no wrong whatever they tried. ‘Cars’ is clearly a film that paved the course to what we see now. Since ‘Cars’, many of Pixar films appear to be more personal endeavours and it seems that this had a hand in that. ‘Cars’ slender screenplay exposed limitations, which clearly have been witnessed in films that occurred afterwards. The fact that a ‘Cars 3’ has been greenlit despite a poorly received sequel, highlights what the studio must do to get an ‘Inside Out’ released. As a film, and despite its somewhat alienating subtext, ‘Cars’ mainly works as a handy distraction for kids. The problem is by 2006, everyone had their own thoughts on wanting more.

Rating: 6 out of 10

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