Format: DVD from personal collection on various players.
Part of the reason for that may be that in a lot of ways, Cars tells a story that we already know; it just does it with animated cars. The story at the heart of this film is little more than Doc Hollywood with a racing theme slapped over it like a new coat of paint. Essentially, a hotshot is trying to get to California and gets sidetracked in a backwater, falls in love, and figures out what is really important to him. And in the end there’s dancing, songs, and smiles.
Okay, I’m being dismissive. New rising race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a rookie on the Piston Cup circuit, but has entered the final race of the season in a three-way tie for first with racing legend The King (Richard Petty) and perennial second-place finisher Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). The three tie in the final race, leading to a race-off between them the following week. McQueen has become a sensation, but he’s unwilling to work with anyone and consistently fires his crew chiefs.
On the way to California, we learn that his life is pretty empty. He gets a bunch of free tickets for the race, but realizes he has no one to give them to. Along the way, his truck Mack (John Ratzenberger) is tormented by a gang of hot rods and Lightning McQueen slips out of the back of the truck. After a series of misadventures, he finds himself impounded in the little town of Radiator Springs, once a bustling place on Route 66, now bypassed by the freeway. His misadventures caused a great deal of damage to the road and he’s sentenced to fix the pavement before he can leave.
The town, of course, is filled with colorful characters. Most colorful and relevant to the film are Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a tow truck; Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a former big-city lawyer who discovered the place and fell in love with it; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman in his last film role), the local doctor, judge, and as it turns out, former race car. Lightning struggles against his bonds at first but eventually succumbs to the charm of the small town (and the charms of Sally) and learns to appreciate the place. By the end, he’s fallen in love with the little town the same way Sally did.
And, of course, we eventually get to the big race and all of his new friends show up to cheer him on. The ending is actually pretty good. It’s a bit trite, perhaps, but it works nicely in the context of the film and adds a little touch of sweetness at the end.
The problem with Cars isn’t the animation (which is excellent) but the fact that it seems to be lacking something ineffable that most Pixar movies have. It’s not that the characters are machines, either, because WALL-E works perfectly. No, there seems to be something missing here that just stops the film from working as well as it should. It doesn’t feel specifically like a cash grab (that was Cars 2), but it lacks a certain warmth, a humanness that other Pixar films have. It feels, in short, like an animated movie and not the sort of magical experience we tend to expect out of Pixar.
I don’t want to give the impression that Cars is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It’s just not the same level that most of us have come to expect from Pixar’s films. A lower-tier Pixar movie is still head and shoulders above a lot of other animated films, mind you, but it still feels like something of a letdown.
That may not really be fair, honestly. Cars is entertaining and the voice work is good all the way through. I like that many of the voices are instantly recognizable—George Carlin steps in as hippie VW van, Tony Shaloub is immediately recognizable as the Ferrari-loving owner of a tire store, and Cheech Marin appears as a lowrider that owns a paint shop. These are nice little Easter eggs and add to the fun.
I just wish I liked it more, or that it had more to offer.
Why to watch Cars: It’s Pixar!
Why not to watch: It’s lower-tier Pixar.