18/07/2017

Cars - The Pixar Standard

Thoughts On: Cars (2006)


An obnoxious race car gets lost on the way to the final race of the Piston Cup Championship.


Cars is notoriously one of Pixar's most despised movies - coming in just behind its sequel. Whilst I understand the argument that this is not the best Pixar film, I have never understood the hatred that some people harbour for Cars. What's more, even if this is Pixar's worst movie, that certainly doesn't make it a terrible movie in comparison to other animated features. So, what we'll do today is make a case for this being a pretty good movie, but also explore how Cars fits in with the rest of Pixar's filmography and maybe how this explains why people have such a polarised reaction to the movie.

To start, we'll touch on the obvious positives of this movie. Firstly, it is a highly original narrative for Pixar with incredibly intriguing world building - so much so that, once upon a time, both Cars 2 as well as Planes didn't seem like terrible ideas (though, they're a whole other topic). What's more I find this to be a really fun and engaging movie with an abundance of energy, terrific direction and beautiful animation. This energy stems from the fact that this movie was a huge tonal jump for Pixar when we consider their previous features. And for that, it is a pretty unique Pixar movie. However, this is the first of its contentious problems.

What you see with Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. is Pixar bringing childhoods to life quite literally. This wasn't done so directly with Finding Nemo (though maybe you could argue they brought to life fish tanks that kids stare into) but Pixar certainly returned to this motif with Cars; boy's toy cars were made to talk and race. However, unlike what had come before, Cars polarises its audience considerably. In such, though it can be thought to be about 'toys' like Toy Story, cars are predominately boy's toys. So, whilst Toy Story tapped into a much more universal sensibility, Cars focused elsewhere. What's more, Cars is of course all about motor racing and NASCAR, which is obviously huge in America, though not thoroughly. Cars then appeals to a niche, though significantly large, audience that alienates portions of Pixar viewers both inside and outside of America. So, whilst I would say that this narrative has more to it than just NASCAR and middle-American living and is very accessible, the first act is a polarising one that really does set that tone, leaving the first 30 minutes a hurdle that is never really overcome.

Further elements of this marketing that may effect how Cars is perceived concerns how commercially incentivised the movie appears; it looks like it's just an advertisement for toy cars, Bud Light and NASCAR. This would understandably turn off people looking for 'more' from Pixar and parents maybe not wanting to show this to their kids. Adding to this, Cars opens with a tone that is incredibly alien to most Pixar movies. In such, this movie is focused on the cool both through Lightning McQueen (we will return to characters later) and general aesthetics. This leaves this movie feeling like simple spectacle and entertainment; entertainment that is imbued with adult jokes that many won't appreciate. My favourite of these is certainly this one...


... where Lightning McQueen's fans 'flash' him. Personally, I find this to be quite ingenious (though not entirely sensical) and discreet enough for it to entirely go over kids' heads, but I certainly understand how it contributes to a tone that is far removed from that of Monsters Inc. or Toy Story that would deter quite a few people.

An extension of this basic entertainment is the appeal to other modes popular entertainment that are often attributed to the 'other half' or 'other side' of America. In such, this movie doesn't really try to appeal to many city-dweller's sensibilities, instead focuses on simpler rural living. Moreover, it is imbued with characters and themes that call back to a different era of filmmaking - that being the westerns and big movies of Hollywood's golden age that would romanticise both America's past and its non-city folk. So, if you think of Mater (who, yes, I'm sure a lot of people hate), you could easily imagine him being a bit-part or a sub-character in a John Wayne movie like Rio Bravo.


In fact, if you look at the archetypal figures in westerns like Rio Bravo, you will see many parallels to Cars. Primarily, we have the older, wiser man who is a bit gruff and rough around the edges - often played by John Wayne. Then there's the young whippersnapper or go-getter. Added to this, there's the darn gosh silly sidekick who gets on everyone's nerves, but can be likeable. And somewhere thrown into the mix will be a bunch of caricatures and, of course, a love interest; a Grace Kelly, Angie Dickson or a Rita Hayworth. All of these archetypes are present in Cars...


So, a reason why Cars may not work for so many people would be the same reason why we don't have anything that really resembles John Wayne movies anymore. Whilst we have superheroes and heroes that have filled that void, the tone of the old western movies has basically been done away with - much like that of the old comedies and musicals. When Cars attempts to tap into this, we could understand it to come off as cheesy to some, maybe even racist, insensitive or plain annoying to others - especially through the character of Mater. What's more, in place of romantic looks back into history, modern audiences have come accustomed to a focus on the future and present, primarily through sci-fi and action hero movies. This is a result of shifting cultures and times, a technologically evolving industry and just general changes in trends. So, when Cars attempts to tap into this vein of a bygone cinema, I think it's clear that it gets lost on quite a few people.

However, coming back to tone and characters, we have to look past Mater and to Lightning McQueen. McQueen represents one of the biggest changes that Pixar attempts with this movie. Never had they, and never have they since, constructed a character like McQueen. With Woody, Buzz, Flik, Atta, Sully, Mike, Boo, Marlin, Nemo and Dory, Pixar create faulted characters with hugely redeeming factors--overwhelmingly redeeming factors. With Woody, though he is a dick to Buzz, he is only so because he's being neglected and treated pretty badly by the other toys. So, not only do we understand who Woody is and why, but he transforms over the narrative. With Sully and Mike, they horrify kids to fuel their economy, but we forgive them for this because they are good friends and their victims are never shown on screen. And with Marlin from Finding Nemo, he's an over-protective dad who had his entire family taken away from him - hard to not shed a little sympathy there. Compare these righteous characters to Lightning McQueen whose only redeeming factor is that he has talent, and you can see how people's expectations weren't met by this movie. Pixar then took quite a risk in emphasising all of Lightning's downfalls, and I don't think it payed off. This is simply because McQueen's too much of a dick in a narrative that has already failed to meet audience's expectations of a Pixar movie, and by the time he starts to change, most people have already checked out.

What we have to then stop and ask here is if Pixar have shot themselves in the foot by pursuing such predictable movies - in terms of their themes and content. When people say "not what I wanted from Pixar" or "not to the standards of Pixar", they are saying that they're not being given characters built in the same way and with the same tone as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc and Finding Nemo. There are some grounds on which I think this is a valid critique for Cars as its central themes are not as dire and hard-hitting as those in the previous movies - which all deal with parenthood and childhood (apart from A Bug's Life, but, most people ignore that one). However, in all honesty, I'm pretty happy to have a lighter movie from Pixar that breaks its standards. I think this set them up wonderfully for Ratatouille and WALL-E, which are both ingenious, but are also strong departures from the founding Pixar films. So, Cars as a set-up for Ratatouille seemingly defined Pixar as a company that didn't just make those three movies about childhood and parenting which they will continue to make forever. Whilst they return to this safe-ground quite often, I can appreciate Cars as a movie that decided to change this tone and approach characters differently.

And in coming back to a focus on character, I think a strong case can be made for Cars having pretty solid characters and narrative meaning. As said, it doesn't have that serious and heart-wrenching tone of other more emotional Pixar films, but, I do think it retains a quality of character and narrative. On a side-note I wouldn't say that this quality of even Pixar's best films matches that of Disney - who I would say make animated masterpieces (evidence for this being all the posts in the Disney Series). But, let's not waste time comparing Disney to Pixar.

Back on point, Lightning McQueen is a well-developed character with a good arc that matches that of a plethora of other characters from other movies, leaving him somewhat unoriginal. Nonetheless, the projection of McQueen as a selfish character that thinks the world revolves around him is made quite genuine with subtextual themes of purpose. Whilst he is a star, all he does is go around in a circle really fast. People appreciate and admire him for his talent at this, but no one truly respects him; not other racers, not his fans, not his supporting team - and he has no friends or family to speak of. What he then learns when going into Radiator Springs isn't just the worth of friends and a community, but the worth of attempting to build something from your life that serves a direct and meaningful purpose to people - which is what the road he destroys and rebuilds represents. And in this respect, Cars again fits in the library of Pixar's films very well as it follows on from The Incredibles' themes of heroes and family. In such, whilst The Incredibles had a good focus on a small family circle, it didn't do too well in assessing its themes of change in society as well as the superheroes' impact on a nation of people. Cars does an ok job of this by showing how true heroes and genuine idols are built. Moreover, it deals with the past and lost idols quite well too. However, it has to be said that Cars is not very profound and certainly is not as insightful as Hercules - which is also all about genuine heroes.

So, narrative-wise, character-wise and tone-wise, Cars does have its problems, but I don't think these are overwhelming. There is then only one more detail that brings this movie down quite a bit: the world building. As an extension of Pixar's focus on bringing to life childhood, Pixar immerses you in new worlds wonderfully. This is almost the strongest element of all of their films, and Cars isn't an exception. But, I think a big mistake was made in this being a pure fantasy. With Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredbiles, there were implications of a human world; Cars does not have this. In all honesty, I don't see how it could have without being a cheesy Herbie or Transfomers movie, but in establishing this world where there is simply no realism and no people, Pixar went into a realm that alienates every other one of its films. This is a slight problem with Brave too; whilst Pixar successfully went into the future with WALL-E, they couldn't manage it with the past in Brave. Nonetheless, Cars sticks out like a sore thumb like no other movie in Pixar's filmography thanks to its strange world building - which is rife with questions of how society functions, how cars do every day things, how they themselves work as either biological or mechanical beings, how they build and handle materials and objects... the questions go on and on and they are never answered. And I think this is one of the biggest flaws of this movie.

Coming towards conclusion, I have always enjoyed Cars - and maybe more than I should. There are many factors that imply why people don't like this movie. One of the main ones we haven't really touched on is that the kids who saw Toy Story when it first came out and fell in love with Pixar when they were young would now be 10 years older - and so will probably not be very accepting of this movie because of all that it tries to do differently. So, whilst I would certainly agree that this is not Pixar's best movie and that it's quite clear how this movie is faulted, I would suggest that Cars isn't as bad as most people will tell you it is. So, with my case made, what are your thoughts on this movie? Do you completely hate it? Are there any redeeming factors? Has your mind been changed at all?

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