Monday, June 14, 2021


Note: The review contains spoilers for Cars.

When you start off good and you’ve been practicing your craft long enough, you are likely to have at least one weak point somewhere in your career. In the case of Pixar, their first arguably weak movie in their catalog was the original Cars film in 2006. When I saw the first trailer in front of The Incredibles in a theater, I will admit the concept of basing a movie around a world of anthropomorphic vehicles was baffling to me, however I watched it anyway out of my loyalty to Pixar, finding it surprisingly average for them at the time and their weakest film until Cars 2 came out in 2011. In the 15 years since, I have only watched Cars again sparingly, however I recently decided to give it a closer look to see how well it held up when compared to its sequels. Though I generally enjoyed it, it’s still not exactly one of Pixar’s better movies.

Racing rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has made it to the final race of the Piston Cup, with the prize including a sponsorship from Dinoco. Despite not taking a pit stop, Lightning ends up in a three-way tie with veteran Strip “The King” Weathers (Richard Petty) and runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), leading to a tie-breaker race between the three taking place in California in a week. On his way to the race, Lightning insists that Mack (Joh Ratzenberger), his transport truck, not stop for rest, which ultimately leads to Lightning accidentally exiting the trailer and crashing into the town of Radiator Springs, causing a mess that he is forced to clean up over several days.

After a mishap on the road, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, right)
causes trouble in Radiator Springs. Left: Mater (Larry the Cable Guy)

The story follows a decent character arc for Lightning McQueen, in which he starts out self-absorbed and the residents of Radiator Springs humble him. While it does have all the right elements for a classic Pixar movie, for whatever reason I can’t help feeling that it somehow lacks the same emotional punch as their previous six movies before it. What may not help is that some of the humor gets a little juvenile and drifts a little into “pre-Kung Fu Panda DreamWorks Animation” territory, featuring caricatures of celebrities such as Jay Leno (as Jay Limo, voiced by the actual Jay Leno) and California’s then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (as Sven the Governator, voiced by Jess Harnell), not to mention an implication of a “tramp stamp” on one of the female characters. The emotional arc and Lightning McQueen’s character growth are there, it just doesn’t land as hard as it should.

I understand he's a known car enthusiast, but Jay Leno's cameo felt unnecessary.

Also not helping is that, upon the film’s announcement, the premise of a world populated entirely by anthropomorphic vehicles raised a lot of questions about how exactly the world operates, such as how cars some into being and how most things were made without hands. While it is a hard pill to swallow at the onset, especially since gas company Chevron’s own car mascots and even Pixar’s other non-human protagonists exist alongside humans, it’s a lot easier to look at the film objectively when you don’t think about this too hard. The two sequels don’t do anything to answer any such questions either, though by that point I had already accepted that this is just how this world works.

Though the visuals have noticeably aged a little against Pixar’s more recent fare, they still hold up quite nicely. The liquid effects are realistic and backed by some really good sound design, plus the textures of all the different vehicles are realistic and varied appropriately. Several shots of the opening sequence, prior to the reveal that the characters are the vehicles, almost look real even after 15 years, showing a lot of care was put into rendering said vehicles in a believable way.

The environmental details can also be clever at times.

Pixar has proven themselves capable of getting very emotional performances out of their primary actors, and this film is no exception. Owen Wilson gives Lightning McQueen an appropriately obnoxious attitude during most of the film, putting a lot of nuance in his delivery as his character changes for the better over the course of the story. Though he’s not on-screen for too long, the late Paul Newman puts his all into his performance as Doc Hudson, a retired racing legend who indirectly teaches Lightning the importance of thinking outside the box and to not think of yourself too highly. Larry the Cable Guy, while a fitting voice for the character of Mater, is a bit of an unusual casting choice, though thankfully his character is spaced out enough in the movie to not overstay his welcome or become grating.

Even after all this time, Cars is just okay. Though all the right elements are there, something about it is missing that prevents those elements from truly coming together and I’m not sure why, so it fails to stand up with the studio’s best work despite having its good qualities. That said, I wouldn’t not recommend this movie so long as you temper your expectations, though if you choose to explore the greater Cars franchise beyond this first installment, you can safely skip over Cars 2.

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