Regardless about how you feel about Cars, it brings forth some fascinating and potentially disturbing questions and theories. For example, if all these cars are alive and sentient, yet require the same kind of mechanical work as cars in our world do, where did their creators go? How does their fuel industry work? Why is it that farm tractors are so much less intelligent than the rest of the vehicles? At some point I’ll talk about the Pixar theory and some of the details behind it, but for now, it’s an interesting thought for this movie on its own.
Anyway, Cars is a movie that stars sentient vehicles. After the previous three Pixar movies weren’t directed by John Lasseter (who directed the first three Pixar movies), he returns to the director’s chair for this one, along with co-director Joe Ranft. It’s worth mentioning that Ranft joined Pixar in 1991 as their head of story, and he worked on all of their theatrically released films up to 2006. He helped with writing, co-directing, and he voiced characters like Wheezy the Penguin in Toy Story 2 and the caterpillar in A Bug’s Life, and one of the shrimps in Finding Nemo. He also worked on The Brave Little Toaster, all of the Disney renaissance era movies from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, and a number other movies. Cars was the last movie he ever worked on before he died in a car crash at 45. He and Earl (the driver) were killed instantly, while another friend escaped with minor injuries. Cars is dedicated in Ranft’s memory.
With that depressing factoid out of the way, let’s talk about Cars.
The genesis for the film’s concept came in 1998 while Pixar was finishing up A Bug’s Life. At the time, one of Pixar’s writers came up with a script called The Yellow Car, about an electric car living in a gas-guzzling world. Although the idea was eventually scrapped in favour of Toy Story 2, some of the drawings for The Yellow Car would be used in Cars.
Lasseter came up with the core idea for the movie after he took a vacation in 2000 with his wife and five sons. When he returned to the studio, he contacted a Route 66 historian. Eleven Pixar animators rented white Cadillacs for two different road trips to research the film. At the time being, they called the project Route 66, but later changed the name to make sure nobody confused it for the 1960’s TV show of the same name. Also, Lightning McQueen (the movie’s main character) was originally numbered 57 (Lasseter’s birth year), but was changed to 95 (Toy Story’s release year). In the months leading up to release, Lasseter said “I have always loved cars. In one vein, I have Disney blood, and in the other, there’s motor oil. The notion of combining these two great passions in my life – cars and animation – was irresistible.”
For additional inspiration for the animation, Lasseter visited design studios for the big three Detroit automakers, most notably Ford Motor Company, where he learned how real cars are designed. The team worked hard to make the animation believable, with a lot of trial and error in their test animations. Some cars in the movie have tight suspension, while others are looser. They wanted each car to have a unique personality, and one that also shows in their design.
Unlike a lot of anthropomorphic cars, they placed the eyes on the windshields instead of the headlights. Production Designer Bob Pauley said of this, “From the very beginning of the project, John Lasseter had it in mind to have the eyes be in the windshield. For one, it separates our characters from the more common approach … For another, he thought that having the eyes down near the mouth at the front end of the car feels more like a snake. With the eyes set in the windshield, the point of view is more human-like, and made it feel like the whole car could be involved in the animation of the character.” Although some people criticized the movie, I have to agree that it allows the cars to be more expressive and life-like.
The movie made a lot of innovations in CGI lighting. There are detailed reflections on cars, brilliant use of shadows and clever use of darkness. To help ease the strain in environmental creation, they used digitally created matte paintings that blend well with the environment. They also created ground locking mechanisms to keep the cars on the ground, when in the past, animators would need to carefully make sure that characters and objects would touch the ground without falling through it. It also helped that the computers they used were four times faster than the ones used for The Incredibles, and 1,000 times faster than the ones used in Toy Story.
The soundtrack was also done much differently than previous Pixar movies. While Randy Newman handled the main soundtrack and a couple songs, half of the soundtrack came from popular artists, including the likes of Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley and the Rascal Flatts. As much as I’m not a fan of country music, I don’t necessarily dislike it, and it does suit the movie’s story, visuals and tone.
Cars was originally set to release in November of 2005, but was eventually delayed to June 9 of 2006. Some analysts looked at the release date change and took it as a sign from Pixar that they were preparing for the pending end of the Disney distribution contract. They though that Pixar was either shopping around ideas with other studios, or they were just waiting to see what happened with the situation at Disney. But the real reason was that they wanted a summer release, with the DVD releasing during the holiday shopping season.
Although Cars received a positive response from critics, it was their lowest rated movie to date with 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 6.9/10. Some critics gave it high praise, like Entertainment Weekly describing it as “a work of American art as classic as it is modern”. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four, saying the movie “is great to look at and a lot of fun, but somehow lacks the extra push of the other Pixar films. Maybe because there’s less at stake here, and no child-surrogate to identify with.”
Despite the lukewarm reviews, Cars held the number one spot for two weeks and ended up earning $462 million on a $120 million budget. It also earned a number of awards and nominations, including best Animation of the year at the Hollywood Film Festival, several awards at the Annie awards and best song at the Grammy Awards. It earned two Academy Award nominations, including Best Animated Feature, but lost to Happy Feet. As far as my 2 minute research could tell, Happy Feet gave Warner Brothers their only win in that category to date. But Cars’s most impressive feat is that it broke records for merchandise sales, earning another $10 billion over the next 5 years.
As for me personally, I was never that interested in the movie when it came out. Even though I had passed the phase where I was trying to grow up too fast, the movie never appealed to me that much. Although I like that I can drive and I like the looks of some cars, long conversations about fancy cars bore me. The lukewarm reviews didn’t help either. I saw Cars at a friend’s house one day, and thought it was somewhere between good and just ok. When I watched it last night, I enjoyed it more than I remember. I can at least say it’s no longer my least favourite Pixar movie that I’ve seen. That’s probably Brave now.
Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, is a young racecar who’s quickly moving up in the field. There’s a lot of excitement around him. Unfortunately, he’s arrogant, hungry for attention and not all that sympathetic. After causing a crash due to his own ambitions, and then causing serious damage to a forgotten town’s roads, he’s forced to fix the roads at the risk of missing his big race for the Piston Cup. Through his community service, he learns valuable lessons in humility, the value of friendship and just slowing down to enjoy life every now and then. His journey is well told, and Wilson does a great job voicing him.
Other characters include Paul Newman as Doc Hudson, an older car who helps take care of the town, and is later revealed as a famous racing car of old, The Hudson Hornet. He goes through a smaller journey of his own – learning to embrace his legacy instead of trying to leave it behind. There’s Sally, voiced by Bonnie Hunt, who’s the town’s lawyer and Lightning’s eventual love interest. I’m not sure how that works in this world, but whatever. These characters all help Lightning in his personal journey, and their initially testy relationship grows into something stronger by the end of the movie.
And then there’s Mater, a rusty old tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. Can’t say I’m a fan. He’s in the movie a lot and mostly as comic relief. I find his redneck style of comedy mildly grating and not all that funny, although there are a couple moments that are kind of amusing. He’s probably the main reason I can’t call myself a fan of Cars, although I didn’t get as invested in Lightning McQueen’s personal journey as much as most previous Pixar films.
Like I said, I enjoyed Cars more this time than I did the first time, but I’m still not really a fan. Ranking it now, it’s better than Brave and probably somewhere around A Bug’s Life. Personally my favourite part is the post-credits sequence that makes fun of Pixar as a whole, with a number of actors from previous movies portraying car versions of their characters.
So this movie wasn’t really made for me, but I know several people who enjoy it. For example, I have a long-time friend who really liked it, and not just because he turned 19 the day it came out. I know of at least one other blogger who calls this her favourite Pixar movie. And I can see why people like Cars. It’s geared towards people who enjoy road trips, those who are passionate about cars, and those who enjoy the small-town life. If that’s your thing, than you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did. And I liked it enough that I wouldn’t be against watching it again someday, or picking it up if I found the DVD or Blu-Ray for $10.
One thing is indisputable. Cars is definitely much better than Video Brinquedo’s ripoff, Little Cars.
Next up is Ratatouille, and as much as I like that movie, I was never able to decide how much I like it. After that it’s WALL-E, which at least for a little while would always put me in a good mood no matter how I felt when I started it. I haven’t seen it in years though, so I’m really looking forward to it. And then it’s Up, which begins with what is easily the most brutally sad opening in the history of Pixar movies.