Posted February 16, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

Pixar: Cars


The Pixar logo with the angle poise lamp jumping into the space between the P and X has become as iconic as the roar of Leo the lion for MGM. Cars marked the twentieth anniversary of the studio and was directed by the studio’s founder John Lasseter. When the eagerly awaited Cars was released as the summer blockbuster of 2006 it was met with mixed reviews and a cool reception from the critics, yet ask any child of a certain age and they will tell you that they fell in love with the film straight away. Both children and their parents and guardians loved this film equally. Look at children on the street and you can still guarantee seeing children wearing Lightning McQueen and Cars merchandise – a film released some four and a half years ago now. It was not only a box-office success, but also a huge merchandise success. Critics, meanwhile, called it an updating of ‘Tootles the Taxi’ and called it “a turbo charged Thomas the Tank Engine”, very different from the critical success of the Toy Story franchise or Monster Inc. (2001). Critics also lambasted the film for its lack of ethnic minorities –the pimped up Mario is Mexican, Luigi and Guido, running the tyre place, are Italian clichés, while the only Afro-American is voiced by Jennifer Lewis as Flo, the car that runs the gas station in Radiator Springs. But this is missing the point. The world which Cars evokes is one of small town white New Mexico and the white redneck world of Nascar racing.


This was the first collaborative effort from Pixar and the Disney studios, giving it a double whammy, but the critics waded into its lack of real character from usual inanimate objects and that its charm has been replaced by sentiment. For sure there is plenty of sentiment, but was less contrived than in say Finding Nemo (2003), but it also has charm. For sure it is a long film at little over two hours, but it has much to engage and keep both children and adults interested alike. Even the films soundtrack and is part of the romanticised American dream that it hopes to convey from Sheryl Crow’s ‘Real Gone’, ‘Life is a Highway’ by Rascal Flatts or the sentimental ‘Our Town’ by James Taylor. It does lack the wonderful textures, so synonymous with the Pixar films such as the fine blue and purple fur on monster Sully in the aforementioned Monsters Inc. or the plastic texture of the green T-Rex in the Toy Story films.


For those who haven’t seen it (or don’t have kids), the story is about an arrogant rookie race car that finds himself lost in a forgotten town on the legendry Route 66 bypassed by the interstate. After initially trying to escape the town, race car Lightning McQueen grows to love the town, its quirky characters and even falls for a Porsche 911 called Sally. Needless to say he makes friends and goes on to win the famed Piston Cup, understanding the gift of friendship and small town communities along the way. Cars has no human characters whatsoever; every character is a vehicle: even the little flies are tiny VW Beetles with wings, but it does have many very funny characters, from comedian Larry the Cable Guy’s redneck buck toothed pickup truck, Tow-Mater, Paul Newman (in his last ever role) as the grizzled town judge, Doc Hudson, through to many witty characterisations such as a voice over appearance by Jay Leno (as Jay Limo) and an Arnold Schwarzenegger hummer, a Michael Schumacher race car and even the now familiar ‘outtakes’ going over the end credits with a Cars version of Toy Story (including the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen), as well as many other funny characters such as Tex, Cheech Marin voicing a Mexican car, Ramone, and Luigi, the Italian Fiat who sells tyres in the two horse (or two car town) of Radiator Springs (“the cutest liddle town in Carburettor County”). Just look at the amount of die cast metal car merchandise and you will get some indication of how many characters there are in this film. It is also in the details that the subtle comedy comes to the fore after several viewings such as the plane vapour trails in the sky taking on the appearance of tyre tread and the distant Cadillac Range made of upended Cadillacs. One of the films high points is when Lightning McQueen and Mater go out ‘tractor tipping’, mocking that ol’southern hijinks of cow tipping while the tractors are asleep in a field only to be chased by a bull like combine harvester, a moment that might scare younger audience members on first viewing.


I refute that there is little in the way of expression or real character here. True, it is difficult to pull the expressions from the cars, but it is nearly all in the eyes, or more accurately the windshields. As a child, I recall thinking that some vehicles, particularly old ones with chrome radiators had expressions and that is all the film is doing, giving character to inanimate objects, which is perhaps part of the film’s success with children. Both my children, aged five and three respectively still love this film and have watched it repeatedly for the past three years. Next year the long awaited sequel is due to be released and it will be interesting to see if its fan base, young and old alike remain loyal and if the critics will be any warmer to its charm.


Chris Hick