There was a time when Pixar movies were considered to be beyond reproach. Stringing classics together like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo made the name of their studio synonymous with “quality” and “awesome sauce.” Then, in 2006 an aberration appeared – Cars. Look, I’m not going to pretend this movie didn’t win awards at the time from people more than happy to slobber all over themselves, and by extension the knob of, the new Pixar project. I’m also not even going attempt to hide my naked disdain for this movie because at its core, Cars is a fundamentally flawed film. So this week on The Takedown we’re going to hack apart Pixar’s Cars and sell the parts for scrap.
Cars deals in stock archetypes, because of course it does. Anything else wouldn’t be lazy on behalf of the writing staff and insulting towards the audience. Mind, there is nothing wrong with using archetypal characters in your film, but a good story requires a little more than that. So, ironically enough for a 3D movie we’re going to talk about character dimensionality, and along the way I get to explain why every single character in the picture (with one exception) makes me wish that a meteor would just bludgeon me from space.
So let’s consider this asshole for a moment.
First off, if you type “Lightning” into Google it asks if you mean this sticker headlamped idiot. But I’m getting off track about this being a terrible character with characterization that must’ve been mad-libbed while eating peyote-laced waffles. Like the waffles, let’s tuck in. When you are building a character you can start with a profession. That’s fine, lots of things do that. Han Solo is a pilot. Hannibal Lecter is a doctor. Cobra Commander is a professional dip shit. All perfectly acceptable. Lightning McQueen is a race car / race car driver. That is a single facet of his character. But, that’s just a single dimension. If all he has is that he races, that’s not a whole character. We call that a “1 Dimensional Character.”
For the sake of argument let’s say he has another facet of characterization, he’s cocky too. So now bad ‘ole Lightning McQueen is a cocky racer. Holy shit, I don’t think that’s ever been done before. But then, at best, that’s 2 facets, and I’d argue that anybody would be hard-pressed to find another dimension for his character. What we have left, dear readers, is a 2 Dimensional Character. At the very least Ricky Bobby had daddy issues and a whole “If you ‘re not first, you’re last” complex. You know you’re in serious trouble when the character from a Will Farrell movie is considered to be stronger than yours.
The reason that these characters are all just so blatantly lazy is that they are written assuming that the type of cars that they are will fill in the gaps. Lightning was designed after a Dodge Viper, and Sally Carrera is a Porsche 911. As the audience we are supposed to see those and fill in the expansive gaps left in the characters.
Sally Carrera here (seriously, that’s her name. I can’t make this shit up) is a lawyer, apparently. You know who drives a blue Porsche with pinstripes on the back – lawyers, that’s who. That’s the sort of awesome subtlety you can expect from this waste of digital film. If you wanted some characters with, you know, character then you’ve come to the wrong place. Her participation in this movie is to fulfill the Cameron Crowe–esque concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). It’s a trope where a girl that is “cute” and sort of likes doing her own thing makes some sort of fundamental change in the main character. This, in and of itself, is not a particular problem. There are lots of movies where the main character undergoes a character arc due to a female influence. A particular example of where this is flipped is Ramona Flowers from “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.“
She avoids that pitfall because one of the core issues with the MPDG is that they move the plot along for the main (almost exclusively male) character, and that is their entire purpose in the story. They may have a collection of traits that are designed explicitly to get a reaction from the protagonist, but that is all that they are. If you tuned in for “Grey” the character of Christian had the same problem – they are not actual characters but just a means to an end. Ramona Flowers had a character arc and it intersected with Scott Pilgrim’s. Sally Carrera is just in the dumpy little town of Radiator Springs with no reason to be there whatsoever until Lightning McQueen (literally) rolls in. The issue, the real issue, is that they took the rest of the characters and did the same thing. Hell, the resolution of the film involves the whole town of Radiator Springs being a part of Lightning’s Pit Crew – so in the final act of the movie they accept what they really are: characters that don’t exist unless Fuckboy McQueen is around.
Except of course, this guy.
Doc Hudson has an entire character arc throughout. He was a former racer, and after a mishap had to hang it up. He fills the role of the “Surrogate Father” figure, but in this case it works. The only time this movie works is when Doc is on the screen and the sweet, dulcet tones of Paul Newman are coming out of him. It’s this new role for Lightning that brings him out of his shell. Of all the characters he is by far the most well developed and, dare I say, interesting. So when the rest of the characters just spend the movie being the thinnest of paper cutouts and hoping that some weird sense of brand synergy will carry the day, Doc’s presence actually makes them look worse. He’s the clean spot on the floor of the treatment plant – he makes you really notice all the shit.
I can already hear the haters: “Cars is a cartoon, and the premise should be sacrosanct or some such shit.” I think that’s a big pile of nonsense masquerading as a cop out. No, just no. Specifically due to the concept of verisimilitude. That’s the idea that in a work of fiction, the world should exist in a way that at least has the appearance of being real, or at least has an internal consistency that creates a sense that the goings on are at least grounded.
Cartoons can have this quality. Bugs Bunny singing in an opera can make sense, because there is a frame story within the cartoon, making that premise work. It’s totally wacky, but it has verisimilitude because we do not need to extend our disbelief unreasonably. Finding Nemo works on the idea that animals in general, and fish in particular, can talk with each other and form communities. Mildly far fetched, but that exists within our understanding that fish school. It’s an easy jump of logic. Hell, even when cartoons flaunt their artificiality, they then don’t usually base the proceedings on that. For example, Spongebob Squarepants can have a campfire, even though he lives in a pineapple under the sea. It’s totally absurdist, and mildly awesome and in that case works only because it’s used for jokes. Cars has a nonsense premise it plays totally straight, and unless you think about it sorta works. But that’s not what we do here – we think about stuff.
So the concept of Cars is that the world exists in a way that is very much like our own. There are buildings, and landmarks and roads and all of that. That’s fine. Only the inhabitants of this world are all automobiles (or if you want to look at the sequels – planes and boats and whatever the hell else appeals to the 6-year-old male demo). Questions pop up, questions like, “How do you build a building using just tires as your means of adjusting your environment?” “Where do new cars come from? There were no baby cars. Is there a factory downtown?” and “Seriously, did nobody stop to think about this?”
On one hand, the world that the cars all live in requires that somebody or something built them, and those things have hands. On the other hand, no hands, tentacles, or whatever else will get strange Google results to this page. To make this premise still work, let us take it to the logical conclusion, mostly for the lulz. My thinking is that there must be people of some kind, and they exist all off screen. In the movie the inhabitants of Whatever Town USA fix their town up, but do it without showing how. I have to assume that they let their slaves out of the Cozy Cone to do the work for them, before shutting them back up in their hovels. Ergo, in order to make the premise of Cars work, maybe this whole thing is the blasted hellscape that happens if Skynet wins, held just out of frame at all times in a giant pile of skulls and the huddled masses that Lightning MeQueen is hoping to win in the big race.
If you don’t think that’s the case, anybody who has ever owned an American automobile will tell you that cars need all kinds of fixing more or less all the time. So if there are no people, the whole world would quickly devolve into something close to this:
Failing that, Cars has a deep predestination theme. Wherever the cars come from, they exist as full creations from the moment they come out. Only Doc Hudson changed his profession and that was only after he failed at his assigned task. Don’t want to be a racer? Well too fuckin’ bad, that’s what you got. The unnamed creator species made you that way. So do it or I’ll spank you. There is just what you are born to do, and honestly, that’s a bullshit premise to teach anybody, let alone kids. Or, looking at the other characters the moral of the story is: Do your job well, and somebody else will get to do something cool.
Turns out that the plot is an thin as the characters, which is to say not thick enough to be useful. So this shouldn’t take long.
So Lightning McQueen is an up and coming racer, and on his way to new sponsors after winning a bunch of races, there’s a rival nobody cares about and another champion named “King” looking to retire soon. En route to California he falls off of his truck, and winds up in Radiator Springs – a town named after car parts because, like native peoples, John Lasseter uses all parts of the metaphor. Lightning manages to destroy the road through town, and is forced to fix it. He does it quickly and makes a mess of it, and must then spend multiple days in Radiator Springs, learning a whole bunch about a town that nobody cares about. I mean, neither does the audience but without this part the movie is like, 15 minutes long. It feels like the writers are putting in random asides about nothing because they have a word count to hit.
Eventually Lightning gets to California and his race. He’s losing until many of the cars from Radiation Burns show up and give him advice/support. It’s working great until King is ran off the road in a dirty trick from the rival that still nobody gives a crap about. Lightning, having had 50% of his identifiable personality traits switched from “Greater Douche Lord” to “Lesser Douche Lord” turns around and pushes “King” across the finish, losing the race but gaining respect or something. There is music that plays and implies we should be happy. I’m not sure, since I had given myself a headache from rolling my eyes so hard.
That was quick, unlike this movie which has a run time more bloated than bodies fished out of the bay. Seriously, the film is 116 minutes long and could have easily been a lean 25 minutes. It wouldn’t have made it any better, the characters are as well defined as a mannequin’s bathing suit areas (read: featureless and strangely disappointing), but at least it would be less. It’s like going to the DMV, 25 minutes almost borders on tolerable. 116 minutes in the DMV and you have a case for crimes against humanity and/or assisted suicide.
To get to the final time, and to stretch 3 sentences worth of plot to almost 2 god’s forsaken hours that I will never get back, the writers added just a whole bunch of character bits. The screenplay is littered with these little scenes. Character A will interact with Lightning (and it’s almost always him – they exist only to serve his character), he makes a face and some Randy Newman music may or may not play. Then Character B will do the same and so on. Since none of them have arcs, or anything that resembles a real point the films adds a metric shit ton of them.
Now, a sane person might wonder why in the name of anything would you do this. Over stuffing a movie with characters is usually a terrible idea explicitly because of this. Oh, right, I remember why they did this now.
And there is where I think we figure it out. Cars may have been a Pixar movie, but it was not designed to be a good movie. The fact that the otherwise fine folks at Pixar know how to put together really great films makes this one come across as a trick. It’s been argued that other cartoons were designed to be methods to sell toys, but none of them were sold as “From the same studio that brought you Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo.” That right there is some serious bad faith. At best this is a poorly constructed love letter to Route 66 and automobiles. At worst it’s the most blatantly cynical ploy to get on that collectible junk gravy train until Cars 2. In either case is makes the other Pixar films lesser by association, and for that alone – fuck this movie to death with a rocket sled.
And that, is The Takedown. Feel free in the comments to call me out for attacking a Pixar movie with the burning rage of a thousand suns. Or, if you want to be like the Buddy Christ here, you can be the cool guy that agrees. As always, if there is something that you want to see systematically taken apart like democracy, just ask.
Until next time.