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Looking back on Pixar’s “Cars”—and why it should have been about people

This weekend, I watched “Cars.” Since it’s quarantine, and we’re all doing some weird things, I decided to take another look at Pixar’s atrocious 2006 film. Directed by John Lasseter, the world of “Cars” is inconsistent and confusing, and manages to obscure the potentially poignant effect of the relatively simple storyline. This frustrated me somewhat, but what really ruined “Cars” for me was the knowledge that this film was a wasted opportunity. “Cars” could have been an opportunity to tell a story about America’s economic and cultural disregard for middle America, but all that is quickly squandered by the confusing setting, a problem which the film created for itself by limiting its form to automobiles.

The confusion of “Cars” begins with its central story, that of the rude, hotshot race car Lightning McQueen. In his haste to get to California to win the Piston Cup, he pushes his rig to drive all night, where it falls asleep and strands Lightning in the nearly abandoned town of Radiator Springs. While there, he carelessly destroys the road and is ordered to repave it by the town’s lawyer, Sally. Lightning eventually forms bonds with the town’s residents, and learns that Radiator Springs was once a bustling stop on Route 66 before the town was bypassed by the interstate system. Cars disregard Radiator Springs in favor of the interstate, just as many Americans disregard small Midwestern towns in favor of the coasts. In one scene, Sally points Lightning to a couple of cars driving across Route 66, remarking, “Look, they’re driving right by. They don’t even know what they’re missing!” As she speaks, an air of nostalgic Americana builds. “Route 66” by James Taylor begins to play. “Well, it didn’t used to be that way,” Sally waxes; “Forty years ago, that interstate down there didn’t exist.  Back then, cars came across the country a whole different way. The road didn’t cut through land like that interstate. It moved with the land, you know? It rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time. The town got bypassed just to save ten minutes of driving.” Replace “cars” with “people,” and you have a resonant monologue about the economic downturn of a roadside town, overlooked for a faster way to flee to the coast. Replace the automobiles of “Cars” with people, and you have a chance at a successful movie.

The failure of the worldbuilding extends to the relationships between characters, particularly as the film struggles to find analogues between actions meaningful to humans and actions that cars can do. For example, Lightning McQueen and his love interest Sally culminate their affair by “going for a drive.” While it’s true that humans can indeed go for a drive, Lightning and Sally’s drive doesn’t really hold any of the emotional resonance that, say, a hug or a kiss would. In the film, cars also talk about their families within a framework of linear time, which also features prominently in the film along with real life geographic locations like California. This begs the question—did (car) colonists fight (car) Britain in the (car) American Revolution, and begin (car) westward expansion, displace the (car) Native Americans, and fight the (car) Spanish-(car) American War to conquer (car) California territory? To an easily irritated viewer like myself, these things matter. 

The illogical nature of the “Cars” universe extends down even to its most seemingly insignificant details. One scene features Lightning and his stereotypical hick friend Mater going “cow tipping.” Of course, these aren’t cows, they are just non-sentient cars. This begs several questions—why are some cars intelligent and some not? What designates a non-intelligent car as a cow, rather than a bug, also shown in the film? Why—if, per the film’s canon, cars only need gas to “survive”—have they domesticated these car-cows, keeping them in an enclosure? The universe of “Cars” fails because it is not built around cars; it is a duplicate of our very own world, with slight adjustments that attempt (and fail) to compensate for the handicaps of being a literal car.

The inconsistent use of cars in “Cars” isn’t just illogical, but actively weakens the Midwestern story that they’re trying and failing to tell properly with the anthropomorphic metaphor. Since the 2016 presidential election, when the neglected Midwest proved to be a powerful force in getting Donald Trump the presidency only to be again neglected, the unnecessary hollowness of Cars due to its own constraints proves impossible to ignore. A meaningful story about an overlooked midwestern community could have been told, filling a gaping media void. Instead, the inconsistent internal logic of Cars makes it impossible to focus on the emotional impact of the story.