Just as Dickens has A Tale of Two Cities, Pixar has A Tale of Two Movies when it comes to Cars.
On one side, there is the massive marketing success stimulated by John Lasseter’s 2006 Oscar nominee. Though Cars lost the Best Animated Feature Academy Award to George Miller’s Happy Feet (a rare defeat for Pixar), the four-wheeled cartoon comedy consistently has filled toy shelves since its debut. Simply put, if you have children, you no doubt earn some form of Cars merchandise in your home (and if you have boys, the number of Cars toys you own probably multiplies tenfold).
On the other side, though, Cars carries the unfortunate label of “weakest Pixar” when critics discuss possible missteps in the animation giant’s 12 features. Yes, Lasseter’s story of a cocky race car learning to appreciate life essentially is Doc Hollywood on diesel fuel. But dismissing Cars as Pixar’s worst -- as if such a phrase should even exist -- is insanity so long as the studio’s filmography includes a cooking rat or dogs flying fighter planes as they try to shoot down an airborne house.
Now, I’m not saying the impending Cars 2 will be an instant classic. I’m just as worried as the next guy that the sequel trend can only water down Pixar’s storytelling magic. But I’m more than happy to give you five reasons why Lasseter’s original Cars should rank as one of Pixar’s better efforts. Read on.
1. Cars is the definitive NASCAR movie
Baseball has The Natural and Bull Durham. Football has everything from North Dallas Forty to Rudy and Remember the Titans. But before Cars, NASCAR only had the disappointing Days of Thunder as its Hollywood representative. (Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights opened later the same summer, but still, it was light on legitimate racing.)
Cars director John Lasseter’s a car nut, and his appreciation for NASCAR is reflected beautifully in his film’s opening and closing race scenes. Cars captures the intense speed and fluidity of a sporting event that consists only of left turns. By placing his cameras at key spots around (and even on) their track, the Cars animators communicate the smooth, stylish visuals of the colorful sport, the roar of the engines and the enthusiasm of the crowd in both the stands and the rowdy infield. The inclusion of Bob Cutlass and Darrell Cartrip only enhanced the feel of a race-day broadcast.
For those who wouldn’t step foot in a speedway on race day, Cars at least gives a sense of what it’s like at the track … without the warm beer, sweaty rednecks, the deafening sound of the cars as they take their turns, and the bits of rubber tire floating through the air that end up in your mouth.
And if you want to see an example of a racing film made by directors who don’t know a thing about cars or racing, pop in The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer. Better yet, don’t.
2. Farewell Paul Newman, George Carlin and Joe Ranft
Pixar’s always had a gift for finding the perfect voices for particular roles. Who’d dare cast Albert Brooks as the main voice in an animated comedy? But the minute you hear him as Marlin, the worrisome clown fish in Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo, it’s clear Brooks was the only choice for the part.
Cars boasts two Hollywood icons on its voice roster. It also happens to be one of the last things they ever did.
Paul Newman brought decades of wisdom and insight to the gruff growl of Doc Hudson, the one-time Piston Cup champion who begrudgingly mentors upstart Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) when the arrogant race car lands in his small town.
Newman actually attended the film’s world premiere at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, granting interviews to local media (of which I was blessed to be a member) and tearing up our racetrack in a borrowed car. In fact, during my interview with Lasseter, which was held in the Speedway’s media offices, the director kept getting up to go to the window and watch Newman race by. Both Lasseter and I were amazed by the tireless Hollywood legend. Little did we know we’d lose him two years later.
And then there was stand-up icon George Carlin, who has a smaller role in Cars -- he voices the Volkswagen Peace Bus Fillmore -- but his stances against the militaristic Sarge were ideal for Carlin’s humor. Like Newman, Carlin died in 2008, and while his last credited role was voice work in something called Happily N’ever After, it’s Cars that always reminds us of this late, great talent.
Finally, Cars will always be remembered as the last film Pixar pioneer Joe Ranft ever worked on. He voiced so many classic characters over the years at Pixar. He was a deep influence on Lasseter, and I’m willing to bet he’ll be honored in the sequel once it opens on June 24.
3. Welcome, Michael Keaton
While we’re on the topic of Pixar voices, Cars also marks the start of the Michael Keaton era.
Keaton voices Chick Hicks, one of the best Pixar antagonists to grace the screen. Like Wilson’s Lighting McQueen, chick is arrogant, competitive, self-absorbed and more than a little clueless. Unlike Lightning, he’s a sadistic car (he actually totals The King in the final race) who is served a massive slice of humble pie in one of Pixar’s best comeuppance scenes, receiving his trophy for “winning” but actually being ruined in the public eye because of it.
I love that Cars shows that scene, because the studio often pulls back from showing us the repercussions of their stories. We don’t get to see Al land in Japan with an empty case in Toy Story 2 or watch Skinner untie himself from Linguini and Remy’s freezer at the end of Ratatouille. Watching a dumbfounded Chick react to his shaming is a great Cars scene, and one I feel the film really earns.
Keaton’s also a tremendous role player for Pixar to have on its team. If Chick was his coming out party, the celebration continued as the razor-sharp comedian voiced a Ken doll in Toy Story 3. Now if only Pixar can fashion a full feature around a Keaton-voiced character, the Gung Ho fan inside of me can die happy.
4. Taking spectacular animation for a test drive
The next thing that hits me about Cars every time I watch it (which is often, as I have two boys) is that even by Pixar’s high standards, the animation is exquisite.
Lightning McQueen, in particular, is a specimen of gorgeous animation. Appreciate the way light reflects off of his meticulous paint job. It also appears, by trailers and clips, that Pixar improved on that already amazing visual palette in the sequel. I can’t wait to see how Lightning looks racing around international hot spots like London and Tokyo.
Two additional Cars sequences stand out as some of the best computer animation Pixar has done (credit Lasseter and his amazing team). One is the transformation of Radiator Springs into a neon-drenched go-go town from the 1950s, the heyday of roadside haunts like this. The paved road looks so smooth. The shops glow with newfound pride. Lasseter’s choice of The Chord’s buoyant doo-wop track “Sh-Boom” fits like a glove.
The other is Lighting and Sally’s cruise to nowhere in particular near the film’s middle, giving Lassater and his team a chance to show off their mastery of smooth car motion and their penchant for painting exquisite nature shots in their films. That drive in Cars takes on the panoramic beauty of a travelogue, and I find myself muttering “I want to go to there” in Tina Fey fashion every time I see the sequence. It’s just beautiful.
5. Cars has the wittiest end-credit sequence in Pixar history
A Bug’s Life is a very close second, being the first Pixar film to come up with the idea of outtakes and mess-ups with animated characters.
But the drive-in sequence, which views every Pixar feature through the Cars filter (“Toy Car Story,” “Monster Trucks Inc.”) while simultaneously criticizing itself for a reliance on Pixar staple John Ratzenberger is hilarious every time I see it.
Extra credit for getting Pixar stalwarts Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Dave Foley, John Goodman and Billy Crystal to provide quick line readings of their famous quotes, making Cars the most star-studded Pixar feature in the studio’s 30-plus-year history. Take that, The Incredibles.