John Lasseter’s film Cars is a love letter to the automobile, Route 66, and auto racing, primarily NASCAR racing. However, Cars is not that beautiful of a love letter. Between the dragged out plot, the inclusion of Mader the Tow Truck and details that sometimes become repetitive, Cars is like a love letter that includes the wrong metaphors and similes, causing an unintended response of annoyance.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot race car that has managed to make a three-way tie between “The King” (appropriately Richard Petty) and Chick (Michael Keaton) for the Piston Cup. In order to determine who is the winner, the three cars must travel to Los Angeles to compete for the cup. On the way there, Lightning falls out of Mack (John Ratzenberger), his car carrier, and ends up traveling down a dusty desert road before attempting to make it back to the interstate. He ends up in the tiny town called Radiator Springs, where he tears up the road. The sheriff (Michael Wallis) arrests him and the morning after his accident, Doc (Paul Newman) orders Lightning to repave the roads. As he struggles through this task, he meets Mader the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the town lawyer; Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Ramone (Cheech Marin), and Flo (Jenifer Lewis), denizens of the town that grows on Lightning as racing fans panic over his location.
One of the biggest problems with Cars is that it’s set in a world where humans do not exist and presumably a world where there is unbearable pollution since Cars apparently took over the world at some point in time. In all of Pixar’s other films, the characters have to live with humans—although this isn’t as major in A Bug’s Life, but the existence of trash in the big city Flik visits and the sombrero the Grasshoppers party under tells us that humans do inhabit this world. Here, cars control the machines that pave the roads, they make the laws, they create the towns, they run the towns and apparently build every structure. But yet Route 66 still exists, the cozy and familiar architecture of Los Angeles—well, cozy and familiar to me—is still there. Perhaps this is a parallel world, or an alternate history of the country. The lack of humans in Cars leads to there being almost no dramatic tension. In all but one of the Pixar films I’ve written about so far, humans do provide the tension by their deeds. Here, the tension is mostly Lightning saying, “I’m leaving this town!” and Doc saying, “No, you still need to fix the roads.”
But there’s an even bigger problem with this film and that is the existence of Mader. In previous Pixar films, celebrities inhabit the roles they voice to the point that you don’t see it as Tim Allen as Buzz, but just Buzz Lightyear. Here, we are presented with the tow truck version of Larry the Cable Guy, easily the most annoying sidekick ever created in an animated film. He’s dim, he tries to hard to make a joke, he is crude with jokes that will only be caught if you’re an adult and pay attention to the film. For example, there’s this part of the dialogue.
Lightning: He has three Piston Cups!
Mader: He did what in his cup?
Although that is a little more clever than the crude jokes present in the CGI films of Dreamworks, it still feels out of place in a Pixar film. Meanwhile, Larry the Cable Guy feels like he was added in here to attract a new demographic. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason for his character to exist than that.
But there’s still lovely animation and a wide array of cars on display in this film. That doesn’t mean that it’s worth a viewing. At a few minutes short of being two hours long, the film is desperately in need of a trimming, which would probably make it more interesting. Or maybe it needed some deeper character interaction than Lightning falling for Sally or discovering Doc’s secret.
Cars is an incredibly flawed film where it’s hard to figure out what the problem was. It’s clear that there were good intentions with this film, but good intentions does not mean that a product is ever good. At the very least, the film made a lot of money for Disney with merchandising and licensing.