15 Years Later, Cars Is Pixar’s Most Underrated Movie
Our brain often comes alive in the depths of night with anxieties, memories and questions: how nobody has ever been in an empty room; reliving cringey messages on MSN; and even after 15 years, wondering why Pixar’s Cars have tongues.
Two key movie events happened in 2006: firstly, after Toy Story and its sequel, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion. Secondly, Cars, a brand-new IP, was the studio’s big summer blockbuster.
One was more seismic than the other, of course. After years of anthropomorphic success, animating vehicles (and animating vehicles) attracted scepticism and even mockery. The result saw good reviews, a strong box office haul, a bursting franchise and, with time, status as the runt of Pixar’s crop. I’m here to tell you, you’re all wrong. Ka-chow!
‘Okay, here we go. Focus. Speed. I am speed… I’m faster than fast, quicker than quick! I am Lightning! Oh, yeah. Lightning’s ready.’ Cue Sheryl Crow’s Real Gone, and we’re officially in the dazzling, exhilarating, existentially nightmarish world of Cars, with Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen at the wheel.
He’s a cocky young maverick desperate to win the Piston Cup (he did WHAT in his cup?) no matter the cost, whether it’s financial (how does money even work in this universe?) or losing those around him, especially his disgruntled, ‘expendable’ pit crews.
After a three-way tie with Dinoco’s The King (Richard Petty), the long-standing winner of the race approaching imminent retirement, and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), the moustached, bitter ‘bridesmaid, never the bride’ of racing, Lightning hits the road for a final race.
However, after his trailer (voiced by John Ratzenberger) gets caught up in some Fast and Furious sleepy music hijinks, Lightning is abandoned on the freeway. He ends up stranded and impounded in Radiator Springs, an old town along Route 66, left near-derelict by the construction of an interstate. From here, it’s essentially Doc Hollywood with some ‘cow-tipping’ and racing.
Directed by John Lasseter with a script and story workshopped by Joe Ranft and too many others, Cars lacks the emotional finesse of other films in Pixar’s oeuvre. It doesn’t have the earth-shattering pathos of Soul, the immense devastation of Inside Out, the unimpeachable legacy of Toy Story. It often goes for the low-hanging fruit, feels more overtly immature and designed to sell toys and video games (the first of which was absolutely class). All this, and I’m here to defend it.
Firstly, Wilson voicing a race car – ’nuff said. Secondly, the cast is glowing: Larry the Cable Guy as the loveable Mater (like Tomater, without the tuh); movie-mum-of-all-movie-mums Bonnie Hunt as Sally; Paul Newman as Doc Hudson; with guest appearances from Michael Schumacher, Jay Leno, Jeremy Piven and/or Jeremy Clarkson, depending on which version you’re watching.
Thirdly, the music: Rascal Flatts’ Life is a Highway still gets queued up in my car; Hank Williams’ My Heart Would Know; and coupled with Randy Newman’s score, his Our Town track performed by James Taylor – more on this in a bit.
There’s also all the unanswerable questions: again, why do they have tongues? Have there ever been humans in this world? Do they eat? Why are there tire track trails in the sky if planes are also alive? Are their insides made of spread-eagled, half-car, half-human flesh like the guy in the barn towards the end of Midsommar? Does Cars still keep me up at night? Yes.
Arguably, its greatest strength is the visuals. At the time, it was arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement in that area: cartoonish cars boosted with precise reflections; nighttime neon gently shining on windows, buildings and tarmac; the dusty, canyon horizons of the US, still legitimately breathtaking in their intricate detail and majesty. Those frames could be hung on the wall.
The latter serves the thematic heft beautifully, one I found particularly moving on rewatch. At the time, I was spending a week back at home. While I live in a city now, I’ve grown up in small towns in Scotland, living between the coast and countryside, with pubs, quiet snooker halls, corner shops, high streets of takeaways, bookies and… more pubs.
As I sit in trendier bars and nicer restaurants, there’s just no place like your local. Yet, up and down the country, year after year, the death of the high street and more rural shopping areas grows more inescapable. Bustling, popular areas reduced to ghost towns, with Greggs, Tescos and maybe a CeX among the shutters.
During the film, as Lightning and Sally cruise past a waterfall, she recounts the tale of Radiator Springs, a small world undone for the sake of 10 minutes driving time. Once upon a time, hundreds of cars would pass through every day, enjoying the organic petrol, the bespoke tires, the small connections before getting on their way. But with the interstate, they stopped coming.
The montage plays out with Our Town. ‘Time goes by, time brings changes, you changed too. Nothing comes that you can’t handle, so on you go. You never see it coming when the world caves in on you. On your town, nothing you can do.’
‘Main street isn’t main street anymore. Lights don’t shine as brightly as they shone before. To tell the truth, lights don’t shine at all. In our town, sun comes up each morning, just like it’s always done. Get up, go to work, start a new day. You open up for business that’s never going to come. As the world rolls by a million miles away.’
It’s the movie’s best moment; earnest, wistful, a tribute to life not quite universal, but meaningful to those with the roots it sketches. The overall story may feel derivative, but Cars doesn’t deserve the derision; it makes me laugh, well up and smile after all this time. ‘Long ago, not so very long ago.’
Cars is available to stream on Disney+ now.
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