As well as being synonymous with computer-generated animation, Pixar Animation Studios are famed for their high-quality films. Indeed, the studio has set itself such a high standard that its features of a lesser-calibre seem like failures. Cars is an early representative of this problem – an otherwise decent movie hampered by expectations of grandeur.
Cars takes place in a world of anthropomorphised vehicles, where eyes take the place of windscreens (or “windshields”, as Americans would call them) and the lower-grill is instead a mouth. The central protagonist is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a stock car so vain Carly Simon could have written a song about him. Despite his vanity, McQueen is a gifted and talented racer, and on the verge of becoming the first rookie to win the coveted Piston Cup.
On the final lap of the year’s final race, Lightning suffers a serious tyre blow-out, leaving him tied for points with Piston Cup veterans Strip Weathers (Richard Petty) and Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). To decide the ultimate victor, the officials organise a follow-up race to be held in seven days’ time in Los Angeles. Hoping to get an edge on his rivals, McQueen parks in the trailer of his freighter Mack (John Ratzenberger) who immediately sets off for California.
Part way into their journey, Lightning becomes separated from Mack, leaving him confused and disoriented. He ends up in a tiny town along Route 66 called Radiator Springs where, in his confusion, he inadvertently causes an enormous amount of damage. The town’s judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) orders McQueen to leave the town, but local lawyer Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a Porsche Carrera, convinces Doc to make Lightning repair the town, much to the ire of both.
Cars is both a condescending picture and a charming one. The way it delivers and enforces its morals – don’t be narcissistic, listen to the advice of your elders, be considerate of others – is quite heavy-handed, made worse by a hero portrayed to be as unlikeable as possible from the get-go. Yet at the same time, it is such a pleasure to be absorbed in this world, with plenty of calmer, quieter moments to provide a much-needed break from the story.
These moments tend to involve vehicles traversing roads to an accompanying soundtrack, and are the most enjoyable aspects of the movie. It allows audiences time to appreciate the scenery, the rendering of which is stunning, and watch the characters caress the bends in and around Radiator Springs – an oddly satisfying experience. So delightful are these scenes that if the feature were to contain them alone, it would be up there with Pixar’s best features.
Cars also has some great voice-acting (save for Owen Wilson) and, clichéd as they are, memorable characters. Aside from that though, the picture is mediocre, with a predictable plot, generic songs and a Randy Newman soundtrack that is too similar to his other works. None of this would be a problem if it came from a low-budget animation studio, but because it is the work of Pixar, one cannot help but feel underwhelmed.
Occasionally pleasing but otherwise patronising, Cars is one of the most disappointing efforts to be produced by Pixar. Kids will certainly be entertained by the film, and it is by no means bad, but older viewers will be left wanting something of more substance.