Welcome to the Pixar Rewind! Over the next couple weeks, we at Rotoscopers will analyze every Pixar film ever, and what makes each one so great. At the end of the series, and after the release of ‘Inside Out,’ we will have a fan vote to determine which is the best of them all!
Picture this: a fast car with a souped-up motor. You’re at the wheel, a cold drink in one hand, the other on the wheel. Your favorite music plays on the radio. The road stretches out as far as you can see in front of you. I don’t know about you, but, for me, no image conjures up more feelings of freedom than this one, and no movie depicts that feeling better than Pixar’s 2006 classic, Cars.
I have to admit that when I first saw the trailers for Cars, I was skeptical. I’ve grown up around the automotive industry all my life (as my dad is the editor-in-chief for an automotive magazine), so car culture means a lot to me. I was worried that Cars wouldn’t treat that culture with respect; the character designs seemed a little goofy to me, and I was concerned that the goofiness would spill over the whole movie.
I needn’t have worried. John Lasseter, who directed Cars, said many times that he’s just as much a car freak as he is an animation addict. Lasseter’s father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, so he grew up around cars. This upbringing, along with a cross-country road trip with his family and a visit with Route 66 historian Michael Wallis (who went on to voice the Sheriff in the film), formed the background for Cars. With that kind of inspiration, the movie was bound to be great.
For those who might not have seen Cars, let me fill you in on the plot. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot rookie on the Piston Cup racing circuit. He competes with straight arrow veteran Strip “The King” Weathers (racing legend Richard Petty) and shady also-ran Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). On the way to the deciding race in California, Lightning falls out of the back of his trailer and ends up in Radiator Springs, a dying town on Route 66. Initially annoyed at being stuck in the small town, Lightning eventually becomes friends with Radiator Springs’s residents, most notably city import Sally (Bonnie Hunt), good-natured tow truck Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), and former racing idol Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). It’s through these new friends that Lightning comes to “find himself” (as the Brad Paisley song in the movie says) and the emotional center he needs.
The story is a simple one that we see in lots of coming-of-age movies. However, the best stories are always the most classic; they stick around because they have elements that keep them relevant for generation after generation. In this case, those elements include being unselfish and coming to terms with one’s past. Both elements shine through beautifully in Cars.
Cars depicts two different sides of car culture: the glossy racing circuit and exploring the heartland of wherever you live. The movie does justice to both worlds. The Piston Cup world is depicted as a neon whirl of over-the-top announcers, obsessed fans, nosy reporters, celebrities (including Mario Andretti, my personal favorite racer), and sponsors who all depend on their given racer. It’s a colorful, glossy world, but also shallow. The movie does a great job depicting both the beautiful and shallow sides of the racing circuit.
On the other hand, Cars depicts the heartland-exploration style of driving as the perfect distillation of what car culture should be. As Sally says in the movie, “People didn’t drive to make great time. They drove to have a great time.” That attitude is even depicted in the physical landmarks seen around Radiator Springs: the bluff shaped like the Pontiac hood ornament, the mountain directly above the town shaped like a classic muscle car motor, and the craggy rocks designed to look like ’50s car chassis. The buildings that comprise Radiator Springs are classic Route 66-style in their design; the landmarks along the “Mother Road” (a term made famous by Michael Wallis) are known for their retro-modern design, and Radiator Springs’s main street boasts a lot of that kind of architecture. All these classic design elements help give the Radiator Springs segment of Cars a timeless, warm feel.
That brings us to the characters of Cars. Most of the movie’s characters tie in with the themes of simplifying one’s life and being true to oneself. Some of the characters struggle a lot over the course of the movie (Lightning and Doc, I’m looking at you), while others don’t (pretty much everyone else, but particularly Mater and Sally). Looking back on the movie, it seems like the characters who struggle are the ones who have trouble coming to terms with a certain element of their lives. Lightning has trouble keeping his pursuit of fame in check; Doc takes pains to hide the racing part of his life; and Chick’s bitter over always coming in second to The King. Eventually, Lightning and Doc overcome the obstacles blocking their path; Doc finally puts on his racing regalia again, and Lightning makes a big sacrifice to help The King. Chick is the only one who fails to learn his lesson, but hey. He’s the bad guy. What do you expect?
The thing that makes Cars one of my favorite Pixar movies is the feeling of warmth that fills the movie. I’ll admit that I’m biased; the fact that I grew up around car culture, along with the fact that this is my dad’s favorite animated movie, are two reasons I love this movie so much. Ultimately, though, I think it goes beyond that. The themes of the movie are universal ones that are important for everyone to learn. Cars goes to great lengths to conjure up a sense of nostalgia, and it succeeds with flying colors. Most importantly, though, it perfectly captures that feeling of freedom that we talked about earlier, and, in that area, Cars will always be without peer. It’s a truly great film!
What do you think of Pixar’s Cars? Is it your favorite Pixar film?
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Edited by: Hannah Wilkes