The key scene in Pixar’s 2006 Cars comes about halfway through, as Lightning McQueen and Sally ride through the countryside and stop on a mountainside above the small, quiet town of Radiator Springs. McQueen notices the nearby superhighway for the first time and the cars on it brushing by the town without even knowing that its there. Sally understands and laments that, “The road didn’t use to cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land.” This is followed by a flashback to older times, when Route 66 was the country’s main east-west thoroughfare and Radiator Springs was lively and full of visitors. The flashback shows the interstate being built, and then the town falling into decay. It’s the clearest statement of the film’s central concern: how technology forces change - and not always for the better.
Cars is possibly the least-respected of Pixar’s films. It registers at 75% at Rotten Tomatoes and a 73 at Metacritic, the lowest score for a Pixar film. Many critics saw it as an uninspired or derivative. Stephanie Zacharek said that it, “feels soldered together from a scrap heap of tired ideas,” and Manohla Dargis complained, “Cars is nothing if not totally, disappointingly new-age Disney.” Even positive reviews were tepid: David Ansen said that, “It dazzles even as it disappoints.” Today, it seems that while Cars is not hated, it is not felt to be a Pixar heavyweight. Being released between Brad Bird’s two Pixar entries - the thematically daring The Incredibles and Ratatouille - did not help perceptions of this much simpler story.
In one of the most negative reviews of the film, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote, in typically snarky fashion:
Pixar has produced a hymn to the ecstasy of driving. The entire film dreams woozily of a chrome-bright past, and especially of the glory days of Route 66, when, as we are told, ’cars didn’t drive on it to make good time—they drove on it to have a good time.’ Cue a Randy Newman song, one of his weakest, that begins, ’Not so very long ago, the world was different, oh yes it was.’ Along came the interstate, apparently, and ruined everything. Just like that darned Internet, I guess, or that superhighway stuff, or those dumb movies they make with computers nowadays. Oh yes.
Lane (though unable to get over the fact that the film features talking cars) inadvertently hits on a major theme: the modern world’s dual obsession and unease with technological innovation. Coming from a studio renowned for its breakthrough role in digital animation, this is nothing if not self-conscious. If Ratatouille is Pixar’s meta-commentary on the role of the artist in society, Cars is Pixar’s attempt to deal with its own technological success.
Although every Pixar film is still greeted by critics with variations on the phrase, “This movie is gorgeous,” the wizardry behind them is now largely taken for granted. When the Toy Story films came out, the main draw was the fact that the films were animated on a computer. It was a bonus that they happened to be good films. Pixar continues to challenge itself technologically, but discussion of Pixar films focuses much more now on the themes, characters, and form of the film itself, not its medium. Of course, there is still plenty interest in the technological side of Pixar, such as the studio’s current use of 3D, but it is no longer the only or most important story.
This critical shift may have begun as early as Toy Story 2, but it really came to the forefront with The Incredibles. The animation of Brad Bird’s film was clearly top-notch, but critics were much more focused on the fact that an animated film associated with Disney was tackling complicated themes such as marital troubles, disappointment in one’s professional life, a mid-life crisis, and the role of the talented in society. Every film since has become more thematically and dramatically ambitious.
Except, perhaps, for Cars, which seems to be a kind of throwback. The film’s moral is largely about learning to be a good person, doing the right thing, cherishing your friends and being a good sport. The conceit of a whole universe populated by sentient cars living in their own special society is more akin to director John Lasseter’s earlier efforts (Toy Story 1 & 2 and A Bug’s Life) than the later anthropomorphized characters in Pixar films, all of whom are much more connected to humanity. (Remy in Ratatouille is still a rat in a human’s world, while Wall-E is only sentient because he was programmed that way. In Up, the running joke is that dogs who can talk are still going to act like dogs.)
What Cars seems to be doing, essentially, is hearkening back to earlier, more kid-oriented animated films through its story and plot. It places value on older technologies and ways of life: highways which act as part of the community, cars which understand life’s not all about speed, etc. This is definitely couched in a “the old times were better” message, but it does that for a very specific reason. I’d argue (and will later this week) that communities are central to the message of every Pixar film. The loss mourned in Cars is really one of community, not of old-time technology per se. Lane may think it’s goofy, but the film’s ultimate ability to resolve this - to restore the community through the help of a fancy new race car - parallels with Pixar’s own mission of making great animated films on the computer.
It’s not the computer itself which makes Pixar’s films good, it’s the community of writers, artists, technicians, and craftsmen working and sharing together. It’s no coincidence that Lasseter, Pixar’s founder and chief, directed Cars. It’s his ode to his studio’s own egalitarian spirit, while also containing a sense that something good and wholesome may have been lost by animation’s digital transition.
Cars has a rigidly classical Hollywood structure and is by no means the studio’s most exciting or innovative picture, but that’s partly the point. Released at a crucial turning point in the studio’s own history - when Pixar was transforming from “a really talented animation studio” into “the best studio currently making movies” - Cars is a quiet, modest, and spirited examination of change, technology, and the value of working together to do great things.
Tom Elrod is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He blogs at http://tomelrod.wordpress.com/.
Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.