Like his name suggests, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is all about speed. A hotshot red stock car who means to be the next superduper champion of the planet, he concentrates narrowly on what’s just ahead of him: the next turn, the next opponent, the next winner’s circle. To help you comprehend the limits of this self-driving perspective, Cars opens on a black screen with Lightning’s voice echoing: “Okay, here we go. Focus. Speed. I eat losers for breakfast. I am Lightning.”
Though he might sound like he’s headed for a film set, in fact, Lightning is headed onto a race track, as dreamed up — in spectacular color, light, and seeming three dimensions — by Pixar. Specifically, Lightning pops out of his black-space container and into the huffy-puffy race for the coveted Piston Cup. The crowd in the stands is comprised entirely of other cars, as are the pit crew, announcers (Bob Cutlass/Bob Costas and Darrell Cartrip/Darrel Wartrip), camera operators, and vendors. Slick and thrilling in its shiny surface detail, the NASCAR scene stretches before you like an anthropomorphized vista: this is the immediate future of animation, and Pixar, recently and loudly sold to Disney, means to own it.
You might be inclined to believe such proprietary claims during the first moments of Cars. For these few, deft minutes, the film offers no narrative but plenty of focus and speed. The race, you learn soon enough, sets Lightning and a pack of also-rans against the legendary King (Richard Petty) and the brash Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). A dead heat finale sends the three named cars off to a showdown in California, where the prizes include lifelong fame, exorbitant sponsorship contracts, and assorted big-eyed groupies (the très expressive eyes for these cars are located in their windshields, as opposed to the usual cartoon cars, where headlights peep). Inclined to assume he’s the winner (he does eat losers for breakfast, after all), Lightning boards his transport truck Mack (John Ratzenberger) and aims west along legendary Route 66.
As per the formulaic plotline — lifted most obviously from Doc Hollywood — Lightning’s fortunes are sidetracked when he falls off the truck and lands in a teeny town off the highway, Radiator Springs (the fall in itself borrows from another movie, The Fast and The Furious, as bully-punk cars harass lil’ Lightning). Here he meets his life teachers, a raft of raced and ethnic stereotypes dressed up as vehicles, from Sarge (Paul Dooley) the reveille-playing, surplus-selling jeep (at least he’s not played by obvious choice Lee Ermey, the Green Army Man in Toy Story and Full Metal Jacket), thick-accented Fiat Luigi (Tony Shaloub), and hyper-detailed low-rider Ramone (Cheech Marin), to Flo (Jenifer Lewis) the neck-rolling (if she had a neck) diner waitress and Filmore George Carlin)) the hippie VW van who likes to look at the single stoplight: “I’m tellin’ ya, man, each blink is slower.” It might seem odd that such a middle-of-nowhere town would feature a car type from every food group… until you remember that it’s actually a middle-of-Pixar town, where target demographics shape reality.
Lightning crashes into this town quite literally, and during a boisterous chase sequence, he knocks down mailboxes and rips up the pavement. Busted, he’s ticketed and sentenced to community service. Lightning squirms, complains, and tries to escape. Then he gives in, not only to his minder, Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) the tow truck (who provides the requisite proud-to-be-a-redneck jokes), but also to the familiar life lesson that will comprise the bulk of the film’s long-seeming 116 minutes.
Though he makes noises about making it to California in time for the big race, Lightning also seems ready to give himself over to his education, particularly as it’s arranged by pretty blue Porsche lawyer Sally (Bonnie Hunt). He’s also quite taken by crotchety judge Doc (Paul Newman), a 1951 Hudson Hornet, who knows more about the racing industry than he lets on. By night Lightning is grumbling and paving, but by day, he’s discovering the beauty of the western landscape, all big skies and grand canyons, the sort of mythic imagery that, according to the movie’s surfeit of nostalgia, families once drove across the country to consume.
As much as the movie makes such imagery oddly fresh again — in the ever-strange form of animation (look how sharp that butte looks!) — it is also, inevitably, archaic. This would be the point, of course, as Sally takes Lightning round the countryside to show him rock formations and an abandoned car hotel, where families of cars used to stay, apparently, when they were driving not to “make great time, but to have a great time.” (Never mind that the immigrant, working class sorts now inhabiting Radiator Springs would not have afforded such “vacations,” but would have trekked through the west looking for work.)
Impressed by her instruction (as much as her “curves”), as well as Doc’s own racing history and knowledge, Lightning learns to appreciate what he initially calls “hillbilly hell.” Such slowing down makes him a more enlightened and contented racecar. It also sets up for all kinds of marketing opportunities. And second, the movie is firmly entrenched in the business of selling, not appreciating free beauty. Exploiting the seemingly endlessly lucrative NASCAR juggernaut, the film can’t help but remind at least a few potential viewers of their current inability to afford the gas it takes to get to the theater. Is this a great nation or what?
While director John Lasseter has credited his childhood affection for Matchbox Cars for the enthusiasm he brought to the project, the film reframes youthful fancies as yet another set of consumable objects, ensuring that tie-in products will be in circulation for the summer, building on the buzzing about Danica Patric, the Andrettis, and lone black NASCAR driver Bill Lester. Still, some bumps might come up in the road. Word is that while Disney’s Pixar Car toys and Goodyear’s “Calling All Cars” tire sale are both going gangbusters for the movie’s opening weekend. But Cars is also the last animated film Disney will link with McDonald’s Happy Meals. One version of the story has Disney breaking off with a company too famously associated with childhood obesity. If only the motives were truly so noble.