Pixar rightfully has a reputation for being one of the premier animation houses in cinema history, matching their boundless imagination pound for pound with other titans such as classic Disney and Studio Ghibli without barely breaking a sweat. However, even the greatest minds in animation can have the odd misfire every now and then, but even Pixar’s off days usually end up noticably having more vroom than most studio’s successes and this leads us to the divisive existence of John Lasseter’s Cars.
While it hardly can be considered a failure by conventional standards (it was a financial success, spawned two sequels and the toy line was fricking huge), there’s always been something that’s seemed off to me about the franchise so I think it’s high time I popped the hood of the original movie and figure out what the issue is.
Set in a world where anthropomorphic talking vehicles are the dominant life form (a sequel set a thousand years after Stephen King’s killer machine movie, Maximum Overdrive perhaps?) Lightning McQueen is an arrogant rookie race car who is a fender away from winning the prestigious Piston Cup despite his abrasive attitude meaning that no pit crew wants to work with him. Valuing a vapid, superstar lifestyle over genuine friendship McQueen gets an epic wake up call when a series of farcical accidents leaves him stranded in the dying, one horsepower town of Radiator Springs where he literally tears up the road in disorientation and panic.
The locals, led by the grumbling Doc and former big city lawyer Sally, sentence Lightning to be remanded in town until he fixes and replaces the road, but this is going to eat up valuable time McQueen needs to prepare for his final race.
While he slogs away, dragging along the massive, tar spitting, road paving machine McQueen slowly bonds with the locals and notices that they are hanging onto the town’s livelihood by a thread, but they also gets to hang out with rambunctious local tow truck Mater who shows him the simple pleasures of cow tripping and other country pursuits.
Firing up a budding romance with Sally, McQueen also discovers that the hostile Doc was a triple-time Piston Cup winner back in his heyday and his distrust of the young racer stems from his treatment by the showbiz world after his career was shortened by a nasty crash.
Just as McQueen finally starts to realise the virtues of slowing down and smelling the roses, he’s finally tracked down by his agent and the press and whisked off to compete in the deciding race of the Piston Cup – but can he used the life lessons he’s accumulated within the last week to help him be a better car?
To give credit where it’s due, Cars is quite possibly the best example of world building that Pixar has ever done. The design ethic is nothing short of phenomenal, taking into account everything from their technology being formed mostly of pedals (you can’t type on a keypad when your limbs end with Goodyear tyres), to their wildlife (buzzing flies are little Volkswagen Beatles with little wings who even indicate when the turn left) and the early scenes involving the furious action at a racetrack give you literally hundreds of amazing character designs. But while you marvel at the sight of the loud, overexcited, portly guy you see at every Anerican sporting event reimagined as a horn tooting mobile home, the main characters and plot just seem a little off. While Pixar corner the market with story messages that kids may otherwise find hard to understand (death, failure, depression – you know, the fun stuff), Cars message of just chilling out and showing down a bit seems misguided when you consider that the target audience us mostly hyperactive candy guzzlers. Ironically, Pixar’s usual buddy movie on a road trip plot is actually put to one side when there’s actual roads in play and instead the usual odd-couple dynamic is between two guys simply hanging out a bit. There would be nothing wrong with that if the two leads were strong, but Owen Wilson’s city slicking McQueen is fairly bland, while Mater, nasaly voiced by comedian Larry The Cable Guy, teeters dangerously on the verge of annoying and is barely held in check by his sidekick duties.
The other denizens of Radiator Springs barely make a dent with voice actors such as Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Keaton and George Carlin all squandering their vocal chords on possibly the most forgettable background cast Pixar has ever created.
While the story is deliberately slow and it’s demeanor is calm and measured, Cars still manages to rev it’s engine and enthrall with it’s sheer scale along with the book ending race sequences raising the pulse enough to make you wish that the movie’s entire focus was on McQueen’s life on the racing circuit. The script even peels out a steady stream of fantastic, car-related jokes too with this universe featuring world famous chat show host “Jay Limo” and the end credits featuring other Pixar movies being Car-ized as they’re being watched at the local drive-in (Sulley from Monsters Inc. is naturally a monster truck).
But despite some killer lines (“I’m serious! He’s won three Piston Cups!” – “He did WHAT in his cup?”), Cars has always stalled when trying to snag my attention. Maybe I’m immune to its charms because this was a masterplan by Lasseter to cultivate a whole new generation of petrolheads (it would explain the cameos by Michael Schumacher and other racers), maybe I want a more interesting life lesson in my animated movies than “take a minute” or maybe the buddy movie theme Pixar keeps going back to is finally starting to wear like a bald tyre, but whatever it is, it will leave Cars forever labelled as lower-tier Pixar.
A label that actually isn’t that bad when you think about it…