Pixar Animation Studios have churned out many of the best animated films of the last 20 years. Cars, however, is not one of them.
Seeing as the newest installment of the Cars franchise hits the big screen in less than a week, I’ve decided to give my take on a film that scores positively with both audiences and critics (Rotten Tomatoes). Before you tell me I have no business reviewing movies on a website dedicated to covering cars racing in circles 36 weeks of the year, or 34 of 36 for you nitpickers, I’ll point out that NASCAR has heavily promoted all three Cars films over the years. So if the sanctioning body of the sport I cover for a living gets to promote these movies, that gives me license to review them.
For the record, I’m only reviewing the first Cars movie. I won’t review Cars 2 because it was heavily panned by both audiences and critics.
Let me make some things clear before we start though. If you like it, that’s fine. If you enjoy it, that’s fine. If you consider this your favorite movie, that’s fine. In fact, if you fall into any of the categories I just mentioned, please explain to me (in a civil manner) why you like, enjoy and/or consider this your favorite film. Entertainment is not experienced in a vacuum and we all have different tastes. This fact is what allows people to have so many interpretations of the same film. I’m simply doing this to offer a different point of view of looking at the movie Cars, as a good critic is supposed to.
I’m also doing this to see if people like me doing reviews of other racing movies, even if you don’t agree with my point of view of the film.
With all that out of the way, let’s dive into Cars.
The movie opens in a dark room, revealed to be a hauler trailer, with monologuing from the main character Lightning McQueen (played by Owen Wilson). It’s a motivational pep talk about how he’s the fastest and everyone else are ants. The door to the hauler opens and he exits to thunderous applause. The establishing shot reveals that the setting is a race track called “Motor Speedway of the South.” It’s meant to be an expy of Bristol Motor Speedway (check TVTropes.org for more on “expy”), but it looks like a Bristol that was combined it with Neyland Stadium and Bryant-Denny Stadium.
We spend a few minutes on shots that show us the world in this movie is made up entirely of sentient cars. This raises some questions. Is this an alternate universe where humans never existed, yet somehow sentient automobiles do? Does the evolution of cars in the Cars universe mirror the evolution of humans? Were there actual car dinosaurs?! Hell, we see there are car insects in this world. Why wouldn’t car dinosaurs have once existed? I’m genuinely curious if there’s an answer to the questions I’ve raised.
But this also makes me ask, why make this a feature length film? As we go along, you’ll see that this story probably would’ve worked better as a TV show on the Disney Channel.
So after a few minutes of shots showing how cars in the Cars universe aren’t much different from humans, we cut to the actual race itself. After McQueen works his way through the field, we’re told it’s the final race of the “Piston Cup” season and there’s a three-way tie in points at the moment between The King (played by Richard Petty), Chick Hicks (played by Michael Keaton) and McQueen. It’s also divulged that McQueen is a rookie on the Piston Cup circuit who has taken the sport by storm.
Hicks tries to slow him down by spinning him out, then turned another car, causing a multi-car pileup. McQueen makes it through the pileup in a manner so over the top, both figuratively and literally, that even the makers of Days of Thunder would say was “too stupid.”
When the caution flies and everyone pits, McQueen opts not to change tires, the same ones he flat-spotted in that earlier spin, to take the lead. Keep this plot point in mind folks, because everything that happens from now until the end of the film is a result of this stupid decision. And don’t tell me he couldn’t have gotten the lead on new tires. He had almost a full lap lead on the field when the white flag flew, while racing on incredibly worn and flat-spotted tires.
Speaking of the final lap, McQueen has an almost lap lead on the field when his rear tires blew out rounding the final turn. Seeing this, The King and Hicks hit the gas to try and win the race. Why they hadn’t done this already is beyond me. But with The King and Hicks charging and McQueen hopping to the finish, the winner of the race is…too close to call.
It turns out that the race ended in a tie and a tiebreaker race will be held a week from now in California. I can accept that this series would be thrown off by a tied finish for the win. But they didn’t prepare any tiebreaker scenarios to determine the champion at the track so as not to force a run-off race? That’s a rather huge oversight.
That’s another major problem with this movie. So many characters have to commit idiotic actions and there have to be contrived conveniences for the plot to work. There was no reason that McQueen shouldn’t have taken tires on his last stop. If McQueen is really that stupid, then I seriously doubt that he’s actually as good as the movie made him out to be in the events that occurred before the movie started. And I’ll ask again, why did the Piston Cup not have tiebreaker scenarios in place to prevent a run-off race? There is no racing series on Earth that operates in this manner. Even NASCAR was able to break a tie in points between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards back in 2011. So why doesn’t this series? This whole dilemma could’ve been settled with bonus points going to the driver who led the most laps. Do that, and this movie is over. It’s just a Pixar short film shown prior to another Pixar feature film. Or you want to keep the original plot, make it a TV show like I stated earlier. It doesn’t work as a feature length film.
So McQueen loads up into his hauler and his truck Mack (played by Pixar mainstay John Ratzenburger) set out for California traveling at the speed of plot (TV Tropes), which is set to the Rascal Flatts song “Life is a Highway.”
Snarking aside, the few minutes of seeing McQueen’s hauler travel across the United States is actually very well done. In fact, the animation is truly on display when you see the shots of the desert landscape. That’s always been the greatest aspect of Pixar. Their animation is second to none. Even in their lesser films like The Good Dinosaur, the landscapes and creatures that inhabit it look more realistic than CGI landscapes and creatures I’ve seen in other movies, and I’m supposed to know that everything in The Good Dinosaur isn’t really there.
After driving for what’s probably been a day or two, Mack is fixing to pull off at a truck stop to rest for the night. But McQueen tells him not to, despite doing so violating federal law regarding the number of hours a truck may do in a 24-hour period, and Mack continues driving through the night. Why did he keep driving when he specifically stated it violated federal law? It’s because McQueen wants to get to California first to “schmooze” Dinoco, a rich company that sponsors The King, who’s retiring at the end of the season.
Later that night, a group of street racer cars on an interstate in the middle of nowhere USA (seriously, there’s not a metropolitan area near the location of where this occurs) just happen to stumble across a drowsy Mack and play some Kenny G to do…something (it’s never explained). This…something, leads to Mack falling asleep and running over rumble strips. This somehow doesn’t wake him up, even though rumble strips are designed to do EXACTLY THAT! But, somehow, he manages not to run off the road. What it does do is cause vibrations to rattle the inside of the hauler where McQueen is sleeping (which by the way, he gets to sleep the whole time, but Mack doesn’t?), leading to a McQueen bobblehead falling off its shelf and onto the button that opens the hauler door. This leads to an unsecured McQueen slipping out the back of the hauler and onto an unrealistically busy interstate. Before you say, “Of course it’s crowded. It’s an interstate highway,” McQueen and Mack were in the middle of nowhere USA in the middle of the night. I’ve yet to drive further west than Kentucky Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in my travels as a NASCAR writer, but I haven’t seen an interstate as crowded in the middle of the night as this movie presents, and I do a lot of 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. drives to the race track to cover a race. One last note on this point: How does Mack not have an alert that tells him when his hauler door is open or when his most important commodity slips out the back? Am I seriously expected to believe that NOBODY ever conceived the possibility of a scenario like this?! How could they not? THE DOORS OPEN FROM INSIDE!!!
McQueen wakes up and, realizing what just happened, speeds to find Mack. He sees a truck pulling off at an exit and hedges his bets that it’s Mack. I’m not the first to point this out (that belongs to CinemaSins), but what sense does it make for McQueen to think that this truck pulling off is Mack? There’s not a truck stop or gas station area at this exit. So what reason does Mack have to pull off here?
He reaches the end of the road to discover the truck he thought was Mack was in fact a totally different truck. Next, rather than simply turning around and getting back on the interstate where he could probably still catch Mack, he turns left at the T-intersection. And yes, he could’ve just simply turned around because the only turn he made prior to the intersection was getting off at the exit. After that, he’s driven in a completely straight line.
Turning left sent McQueen toward a town in the middle of nowhere called Radiator Springs. He speeds past the welcome sign and the officer on patrol duty. McQueen initially decides to pull over, thinking the officer could help him get back to the interstate, but keeps on going when he thinks the officer is shooting at him (he just mistook piston backfiring for gunshots, and how one would operate guns in this world is beyond me). The end result is McQueen causing destruction to the town and to the road, and winds up hanging from a power line.
The next day, McQueen is brought into the courthouse for the damage he caused. Judge Doc Hudson (played by Paul Newman) enters the room speaking in terms that renders him a “hanging judge” (TV Tropes). But upon realization that it was a racer that caused the damage, he makes a 180 shift and fixes to let him go (it makes more sense later on when we learn his backstory). But is persuaded not to by the town prosecutor Sally (played by Bonnie Hunt) and sentences McQueen to community service, fixing the road he destroyed.
So while he’s repaving the road, he gets a paranoid fantasy about what Chick Hicks is doing with Dinoco. In my opinion, the second biggest problem of the movie is summed up in this moment. You see, McQueen is freaking out that he’s stuck in this town fixing this road while his rival Hicks is on his way to California and, in McQueen’s view, has Dinoco all to himself. Here’s the problem, we’re expected to feel bad that all this woe has befallen our protagonist. But Hicks a dirty driver, nothing more.
So that rather than feel for him after he’s called out by Doc for his half-assed road repair, I must ask what has the movie revealed about Lightning McQueen that should make me want to give a damn about his plight? The answer is NOTHING! There is nothing about McQueen that makes me feel the least bit sympathetic to his situation or his plight to win the Piston Cup.
To put it simply, I don’t care what happens to this character. And you know why? Because at no point has McQueen expressed concern for anybody but himself. From the start, he’s been an arrogant, egotistical, cocky jerkass who wants nothing to do with the company that currently sponsors him, made his truck violate federal law and bypass a rest stop just to get to California first to woo a rich sponsor, isn’t the least bit sorry that he destroyed the only road that runs through Radiator Springs, tried to skip town the first chance he got when his parking boot was removed, which essentially amounts to a prison break, and intentionally half-assed the road repair, after he was specifically told to go slow and steady, just to get out of town faster. If a character can’t express concern for anybody but himself/herself, why should the audience express concern for said character?
And yes, characterization matters in storytelling, even in a kids film. The perfect example is The Secret of Nimh. The story is about Mrs. Brisbee trying to save her ailing son, Timmy. She’s not a horrible cretin or perfect angel. She’s just a mother going to great lengths to save her son’s life, despite the fact she’s deathly afraid of the things she does to do so (buy the movie or watch it on YouTube if you’ve never seen it because I can’t recommend it enough). It’s because of those great lengths that makes me want to see her succeed.
But to the film’s credit, McQueen actually has a fleshed character, even though he’s irredeemable. The others are just one-note stereotypes. Mater is just Larry The Cable Guy if he were a truck, George Carlin is playing a stoned hippy that the film tries to pass off as a Volkswagen van to disguise that fact, Paul Dooley is playing the drill sergeant that I’ve seen in other movies (Full Metal Jacket) and Paul Newman as Doc Hudson is Mr. Miyagi, minus the snark. Then there’s Cheech Marin playing a Mexican lowrider, Jenifer Lewis playing the sassy black woman car and Tony Shalhoub as the Italian tire dealer is about as authentically Italian as the Mario brothers. Hell, Giovanni from Pokémon makes a more convincing Italian, and he’s a crime boss.
BOTTOM LINE: While McQueen isn’t the worst offender in the “not connecting with the audience” department, it was enough to damage the film for me. The worst part, however, is that we’re not at the worst offense this movie has committed.
But anyway, let’s get back to the story.
So McQueen is pulling the asphalt machine down the road when, after talking to Mater, he gets the idea to speed up the process and save time, as opposed to slow and steady over five days as Doc told him. He finishes, but Doc calls him out for his shoddy work and tells him he’s finishing the road until it’s to his satisfactory. When McQueen protests, Doc offers him an out: McQueen can go, if he beats Doc in a race. So they arrive at the makeshift race course where Doc allows McQueen a head start. He asks Mater if he’s got his tow cable for what’s about to happen, because the next thing that happens is McQueen finds himself crashed into a canyon full of cacti.
McQueen spends the rest of the night (lack of a better word) shoveling up the road job he did and doing it over.
And here we come to another major problem with the movie. For much of the middle of it, nothing of importance occurs. Yes there’s the tractor-tipping scene and the drive through the canyon, but that doesn’t connect to the overall story. It’s just filler. Once again, the idea for Cars probably would’ve worked better as a TV show instead of a film. The only plot points that come into play later in the film are Doc telling McQueen “If you go hard enough left, you’ll turn right,” McQueen stumbling upon Doc’s past, including his career-ending wreck, and watching him perform a drift.
Eventually, McQueen finishes repaving the road. But rather than hi-tail it, he spends another day in Radiator Springs.
So allow me to sum up the movie to this point: A hotshot rookie gets lost on his way to California, crashes in a small town, is sentenced to community service fixing the damage and makes new friends with the people of said small town.
I swear I’ve seen this plot in another movie somewhere…oh that’s right, DOC HOLLYWOOD!!! No really, it’s Doc Hollywood with cars. Aside from McQueen being a racer instead of a doctor and having torn up a road as opposed to crashing into someone’s fence, it’s point-for-point a rip-off of Doc Hollywood.
Don’t believe me? Go watch Doc Hollywood and see for yourself. It’s available to stream on YouTube for only three bucks.
It’s time to wrap this up.
McQueen’s hauler Mack and the press finally discover him, after being tipped off by Doc. Again, how Mack didn’t notice McQueen disappeared BEFORE he got to California is beyond me, but that’s beating a dead horse.
So a demoralized McQueen partakes in the big race, but his mind isn’t on the big macguffin race. That’s until Doc shows up on his pit box decked out in his old racing colors, along with several of the towns people. I probably should harp on how Doc shouldn’t have been able to do this considering he hasn’t been at a race track in 52 years and probably hasn’t received a hard card in that time, but I won’t because the movie is almost over.
So re-energized by the power of friendship, or any other cliche I’d more expect to find in shōnen anime, McQueen eventually works his way to the lead in the closing laps.
But alas, there’s one more dumb moment in this film.
Hicks, who states he won’t finish behind “The King” again, dumps Strip Weathers, sending him into a violent wreck down the frontstretch. McQueen is coming to the checkers when he sees on the video screen the mangled car of Weathers. This causes him to stop short of the line, because he’s reminded of Doc Hudson’s career-ending wreck, and Hicks crosses the line to win. McQueen reverses to Weathers and pushes him across the line.
Now this could’ve been a great moment except for one tiny detail.
WHY DID MCQUEEN GIVE UP THE WIN?!!! There was no reason McQueen couldn’t have crossed the line to win the race, come back around and THEN pushed Weathers across the line. Either way, Weathers was finishing behind Hicks. So all McQueen did was let the dirty driver win the race. If this was supposed to show how far McQueen has come as a character, it didn’t. It just demonstrated what an idiot he still is. He learned NOTHING! What’s more, winning the race was his entire reason for coming to California! This means that the entire movie was POINTLESS!!!
Hicks wins, but gets booed by everyone. Dinoco offers to sign on with McQueen, but he declines in favor of sticking with the company for whom earlier he was too embarrassed to do a sponsor appearance. He moves his racing operations to Radiator Springs, which puts it back on the map, and the movie ends.
So what exactly is the story of Cars? When you get down to it, there really isn’t a coherent plot thread that keeps the entire story sewn tightly. The big race at the end of the movie is what’s driving the plot, but it’s quickly forgotten about when McQueen winds up in Radiator Springs — which he also forgets about as the second act progresses — until the end of the second act. By the time the big race comes, it’s nothing more than a macguffin that was only meant to kickstart the story. Now a macguffin isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The plot to Titanic is driven by the search for a macguffin diamond, and it got 13 Oscars out of it.
What exactly was needing solved by the end of the film? It clearly wasn’t McQueen winning the race, because he gave that up, for reasons that still don’t make sense to me.
All that this movie accomplished was demonstrate how pointless it’s very existence is.
However, it’s also harmless.
I call this the Pixar equivalent of Don Bluth’s The Pebble and The Penguin. There’s far better to chose from, especially from Pixar (Finding Nemo and just about any Pixar film) and Don Bluth (The Secret of Nimh), but you can also do worse, especially from Pixar (Cars 2) and Don Bluth (A Troll in Central Park).
As I stated in the beginning, if you like Cars, that’s fine. If you disagree with my point of view, that’s fine. Considering this is a film that scores 74 percent with critics and 79 with audiences (Rotten Tomatoes), I expect to get disagreement, and even some hate.
But whether you agree or disagree with my point of view on this movie, I’d like to know if you enjoyed my review of it. Depending on audience reaction in that regard, I’ll do more reviews of racing films, starting with Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights.
That’s my view for what it’s worth.