Cars Revisited

(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Cars.)

In the early days of 2006, the Walt Disney Company made a dramatic change whose impacts are still being felt today. Michael Eisner had once been the CEO of the Disney conglomerate, and while he’d grasped a modicum of the success that Pixar Animation Studios would bring, he’d always been standoffish to the idea of Pixar being fully brought into the fold. For many reasons, Eisner was pushed out of Disney in 2005, when Robert Iger became the new CEO. As Iger wrote in his recent memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, one of his first acts of business was to do what Michael Eisner refused to do: make Pixar an official part of Disney.

So in January 2006, Disney confirmed a $7.4 billion deal to acquire Pixar Animation Studios. The deal was such, though, that it really felt like Disney was asking Pixar to join them, instead of throwing billions at them. John Lasseter was installed as a creative lead at Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering, too. That same year, Lasseter returned to the director’s chair, for a true passion project. It was technologically as bold and daring as anything else Pixar had done. The studio’s prior film, The Incredibles, had focused entirely on humans, for the first time. For Cars, though…well, Cars was another story.

Taking a Drive

The idea for Cars, though, didn’t officially start with John Lasseter. Instead, it was animator Jorgen Klubien who came up with the idea for something called The Yellow Car. This would be a story about an electric car in a world of gas-guzzling vehicles, akin to The Ugly Duckling. Klubien’s script was first reviewed and initially greenlit in the late 1990s, as Pixar was wrapping production on another fable-inspired story, A Bug’s Life. But for one reason or another, Klubien’s version of a world of cars was pushed to the back burners.

And then, much as there had been a fated lunch in advance of the arrival of Toy Story that would lead to ideas for many great Pixar films, there was a road trip. In 2000, Lasseter took his family on a cross-country road trip that would lead him down a Route 66-shaped rabbit hole. He soon contacted automotive historian Michael Wallis, in the hopes of having a consultant lead him and a group of animators on a trip down the fabled, but mostly forgotten Mother Road. 

Klubien, for his part, has frustrated feelings about the whole experience. The animator and musician was excluded from Cars’ end credits, pointing out in an interview, “It is also the most bitter experience of mine as Pixar got rid of me…and because I feel John Lasseter has written me out of the story of how the film got made.” 

Ka-Chow

The premise of Cars involves a storytelling hurdle for you to get over at the start; for some, it’s incredibly easy. As the title suggests, the 2006 comedy is a film solely about vehicles. There are no humans in this world, and nothing remotely implying that humans ever existed in this world. There are vehicular versions of celebrities, from Bob Costas to Jay Leno, and actors riffing on their pop-culture identity, such as Jeremy Piven voicing a slick agent around the same time when he played Ari on HBO’s Entourage. But there are no humans, only cars. 

The decision was made by animators to give personality and life to the cars by putting eyes where their windshields would go, not in their headlights. The visual choice was in line with an old Disney short, Susie the Little Blue Coupe. From the film’s production notes, it was made clear that Lasseter himself drove this decision. As production designer Bob Pauley put it, “[Lasseter] thought that having the eyes down near the mouth at the front end of the car feels more like a snake.” And so, windshield eyes it was.

The visual design of Cars would wind up as the most important part of the film. Only a few years earlier, Finding Nemo had represented a technological step forward for Pixar from its previous efforts, but even its depiction of Australia didn’t quite look like the real thing, in part because there were enough computer-animated humans to pierce any sense of photo-realism. While cars with windshield eyes doesn’t exactly scream photorealism, the design of the film is its most remarkable element. Nearly 15 years later, the tireless work done by Pixar’s animation team to recreate the American Southwest, from glittering race-car stadiums to a dusty old small town, is nothing less than jaw-dropping. Many of the film’s wide shots can easily be mistaken for the real McCoy (or McQueen).

Love Me For My Body

Alas, Cars is not a film solely composed of images; it doesn’t eschew character or story, and sadly, those two elements still come up short. Some critics, upon seeing the film in the summer of 2006, pointed out rightly that a notable amount of the plot inexplicably mirrored that of the 1991 comedy Doc Hollywood. In Doc Hollywood, a hotshot lead character is both very talented at his job and very arrogant; in Cars, our lead character is a young hotshot who’s risen through the ranks quickly to prove his immense talent and immense arrogance. In Doc Hollywood, the lead character has to drive in a slick red car cross-country to the Los Angeles area for a vital next step in his career; in Cars, the lead character is a slick red car that has to make a lengthy trip to the Los Angeles area for a vital next step in his career. In Doc Hollywood, the lead character gets into an accident in a small town, destroying a fence and angering an older doctor who will serve as a mentor in the process; in Cars, the lead character gets into an accident in a small town, destroying public property and angering an older doctor who will serve as a mentor in the process.

You get the point. It’s not that Pixar going to the well of other live-action fare is beyond the pale; as mentioned in previous entries of this column, the studio’s filmmakers happily acknowledged the inspiration of films such as 48 Hrs. and The Defiant Ones on Toy Story. And you can watch A Bug’s Life and think instantly of Seven Samurai or Three Amigos. The issue is twofold: it’s a very specific (and odd) choice to do a riff on a 90s-era Michael J. Fox comedy (down to there being a Southern-fried hick character in each film as well as a winsome love interest), and it highlights how little there is to the story of Cars.

Dadgum!

Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, is a rookie race-car trying to win the vaunted Piston Cup. He’s essentially come out of nowhere to impress the world of racing, as well as make an enemy out of the obnoxious Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton, not-so-stealthily giving the film’s funniest performance). After an early race results in a three-way tie because Lightning is too arrogant to allow his crew chief to perform a standard check mid-race, Lightning has to head to Los Angeles for a three-car race to prove who really deserves the Piston Cup. On the way, however, he gets waylaid in the small town of Radiator Springs, whose best days are far behind thanks to the advent of the national highway system. But in Radiator Springs, Lightning regains an appreciation for the smaller things in life, making new friends and falling in love.

It’s difficult to talk about all of this storytelling without dealing with the frustration of the film’s mythology, or lack thereof. There’s a famous (and mostly silly, if you ask this writer) fan theory about the presumed interconnected nature of every Pixar film; the only explanation for Cars, in this theory, is that it’s part of a post-apocalyptic world in which inanimate objects have gained sentience by being infused, in a way, with the personalities of human beings who lost their physical form. What this speaks to is the fact that this film makes no sense

I have often invoked, and will do so again right now, a wonderful anecdote from the world of Broadway, when thinking of Cars. The late, legendary Broadway producer and director Harold Prince was approached by Andrew Lloyd Webber to help mount the American production of Cats. Webber pitched Prince on the show, which was playing to packed houses in the West End. At the end of the pitch, Prince expressed confusion, not grasping what he figured was some metaphor at the core of the show about the Royal Family, or possibly the class system in England. As Prince tells the story, Webber paused and said, “Hal…it’s about cats.” 

During the run-up for Pixar’s worst film (spoiler for a couple months from now), Cars 2, Todd Gilchrist of Box Office Magazine attempted to get some answers about how the world of Cars…works. Lasseter said, among other things, “We don’t go kind of that deep into the mythology of the world.” Because, Hal…it’s about cars. That’s the real answer to so many questions you might ask about this movie. How do the cars procreate? Who made them? How can they make TV shows or build stadiums? Why is getting an oil change the equivalent of having a refreshing drink, when oil changes occur in real life months apart? The answer is…it’s about cars. No one thought about the mythology of this world because it didn’t matter, which is a crushing disappointment.

Our Town

If you like cars, you may find the elegiac nature of Cars and its tribute to the Mother Road both charming and heartfelt. That’s the calculated risk of this movie, best exemplified in a sequence near the midpoint. Lightning has spent some time in Radiator Springs by now, and is slowly softening to its antiquated charms; he’s invited by Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a slick Porsche from the big city who’s set down roots in the small town, to just take a leisurely drive. At the end of their drive, Sally explains that the natural beauty of the Southwest is what she fell in love with, and why she moved away from the big city. In doing so, she also clarifies why Radiator Springs fell into disrepair, as the film transitions to a sepia-toned flashback scored to the Randy Newman song “Our Town”, performed by James Taylor.

This scene is why Cars is a risk. In some respects, it mirrors the key scene in Toy Story 2, as Woody and the audience learn what it is about Jessie that’s made her so frustrated with our hero and so desperate to be shipped off to a toy museum in Japan. There’s a heartbreaking revelation, an emotional song meant to wring tears from all of us, and a big flashback. And if you look at it, both flashbacks require us to feel bad for inanimate objects. But there’s something truly hollow about the “Our Town” sequence, a remarkable shift considering how genuinely gorgeous and visually stunning that leisurely drive is. Even now, when Lightning McQueen is awestruck at the rocky outcroppings and waterfalls just a few minutes from Radiator Springs, as he overlooks the Grand Canyon, it’s an impressive achievement. 

But the same cannot be said for this film’s emotional arc. We’re asked by Lasseter and his team to feel sympathy for the loss of a simpler way of life (one that is arguably at odds with the technologically groundbreaking animation) represented by Radiator Springs. In Toy Story 2, we’re asked to sob for a character. In Cars, we’re asked to sob for…a town. Though it was always a small town, it thrived in the days before a freeway took people on a faster route through the country. This, of course, reflects the reality of small towns that were positioned on Route 66, a winding road that has since become far less common. If you don’t care enough about cars or car culture, though, this sequence feels like a truly tone-deaf attempt to gin up nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.

Cutlass, Cartrip, and Limo

The film surrounding that sequence is similarly on a precarious balance between offering dazzling delights and feeling painfully old-fashioned. The mismatched buddies here aren’t quite the same as Woody and Buzz or Marlin and Dory; Lightning instead becomes best buds with the dumb tow truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), despite Mater being too blissfully ignorant to be bothered by his new pal’s snot-nosed haughtiness. The smart/dumb dichotomy between the two doesn’t ever quite take off, either. There’s just lots of jokes that feel as if someone at Pixar was a really big fan of the Blue Collar TV comedy program from the early 2000s. (Remember Blue Collar TV?)

There are, frankly, a lot more pop-culture references in Cars than in any other Pixar film to date. It’s not that other Pixar films don’t quote from prior movies – in the Toy Story sequel’s opening scene, Buzz Lightyear hops across a bridge, with each step making a musical note to sound like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is, however, a difference between an aural joke that works for some adults, vs. Jay Leno playing a version of himself named Jay Limo. (You see, because the shortened word for limousine sounds a lot like the name Leno. See? Do you get the joke?)

This Flinstones style of humor is a dangerous game to play, especially because it means Cars often fails the test of timelessness. Which is ironic, when you think about how the movie is also arguing in favor of the timeless nature of the slow, leisurely drive throughout the beauty of the American countryside. The comedy in Pixar’s other films to this point don’t rely on the audience knowing about certain specific people or shows within popular culture; Cars, to its detriment does.

Winning the Piston Cup

Cars did well when it opened in the summer of 2006, at least domestically. In the States, it made $244 million domestically, which is both an impressive number and the lowest domestic gross for a Pixar film since A Bug’s Life, just barely making less than Toy Story 2. (Overseas, unsurprisingly, Cars didn’t rev a lot of financial engines, with just $217 million. …What? You thought I wouldn’t make at least one pun? Come on.) Overall, Cars made just over $460 million worldwide, a number that would not automatically lead to the assumption that the film would inspire a massive franchise. For reference, since the release of Toy Story 2, only Cars, The Good Dinosaur, Cars 3 and Onward have made less than $500 million worldwide. Every other Pixar title has topped that number. And we all know that Onward, creative success or not, has a very large asterisk next to its box-office performance.

And yet, Cars did wind up inspiring two sequels, two spin-off films, a series of related short films, and an eventual themed land at Disney California Adventure in the Disneyland Resort. Cars Land, as it’s fittingly called, is an impressive evocation of Radiator Springs. Even for those of us who aren’t taken with the so-called World of Cars that this film evinces, the themed land and its centerpiece attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, is stunningly detailed, well themed, and generally the kind of atmospheric, lifelike experience that any great Disney theme park aspires to.

Like the land, of course, Cars feels wholly like the product of John Lasseter. Up to this point in the series, we haven’t really talked too much about Lasseter’s influence, for a number of reasons; much as he cut a Disney-like figure during his tenure at Pixar, he wasn’t often the sole creative voice on any project, even those on which he was credited as director. (With the exception of Brad Bird, it’s easier to see the Pixar brand as the auteur, not a specific filmmaker.) Cars does feel a bit more Lasseter-like in its execution, detailing how a slick up-and-comer gains appreciation for life and those around him, eventually realizing that he can’t do everything by himself. In a way, it’s an odd little rebuke, though likely an unintentional one, to The Incredibles and its writer/director. Mr. Incredible argues, for the most part correctly, that great individuals need to be given a great platform. Lightning McQueen learns that he needs help from those around him, even those who might not seem that incredible.

Cars is also, like many of Pixar’s other films, male-centric. Hunt is the most notable female performer in Cars; most of the cast members, also including the late and legendary Paul Newman (who is unsurprisingly quite good in his last fictional film role as the ex-racer Doc Hudson), are men. Considering the arc of the Cars movies – it doesn’t seem like an accident that the third and final film in the franchise is largely about Lightning passing the torch onto a younger female car – the framing of Lightning’s journey in this opener is more fascinating on a subtextual level than as part of the film itself.

To date, Pixar has been nominated 13 times in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars, and they’ve won 10 times. In 2006, Cars served as one of their three losses, losing the honor to Happy Feet, in a year when only three films were even nominated. This first film, at least, can lay special claim to the honor of being nominated; Cars 2 and Cars 3 didn’t even get that far. The film may have gotten a slightly more tepid response from critics and some audiences, but Cars has survived for 15 years because of its multi-billion-dollar merchandising. When you sell 8 billion dollars’ worth of toys, it’s easy to understand why Pixar and Disney wanted to get as much oil out of that well.

By the time Cars opened, Disney owned Pixar. But it felt much more like Pixar owned Disney. John Lasseter and his fellow animators had never been in such a place of power, able to dictate creative terms in ways they’d barely dreamed of in the past. There was a more important element to consider at least for the next few years: while Cars was the last film fully created and produced before Disney bought Pixar, they’d had a number of other projects in the pipeline. 

The next three titles, specifically, would push the studio in creative ways beyond anything mainstream animation had ever accomplished.

***

Next Time: Let’s go to the kitchen with some rats.

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