For a studio which prides itself on its dedication to story crafting and world building, “Cars” is a curious beast. The world it presents and the way it presents it simply doesn’t make sense. Reportedly a passion project for keen petrol head and Pixar chief John Lasseter, it comes across as more of a vanity project given how blatantly it flouts the studio’s usually peerless focus on storytelling and character.
When rookie sensation Lightning McQueen (Luke Wilson) manages a three-way tie for the coveted Piston Cup, a special run-off race is arranged for a weeks’ time in California. Brash, arrogant and self-centred, McQueen’s thoughtlessness ends up stranding him in the quiet backwater town of Radiator Springs after an accidental night-time rampage. With the make-or-break race only a few days away, McQueen must make amends to the townsfolk and get himself back into racing form.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that nothing about the world we are presented in “Cars” makes sense. Superficially, it’s super cute and the animation design is superb even if they make the baffling decision to make the windscreen the eyes instead of the headlights. The characters themselves are pretty good too although only Lightning himself, Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) and Doc (Paul Newman in his final acting role) get anything resembling development. It’s the world that surrounds them that just doesn’t make sense, undermining everything else. Is it our world but now devoid of human life? No, there are numerous indications that – apart from vegetable matter and, millions of years ago dinosaurs – this is a civilisation of vehicles. So why does the world they inhabit have no many odd and incompatible design features? It’s maddeningly frustrating because for every clever ‘adaptation’ the film makes to accommodate a world of cars, it drops the ball on half a dozen other things that simply wouldn’t exist in that form if humans had never existed.
But – I hear you say – it’s just a kids movie and you should just suspend your belief. Fine, the problem with doing that though it when you do that, and disregard the whole cars gimmick all you’re left with is a thinly written copy of “Doc Hollywood” drenched in the overpowering cologne of rose-tinted nostalgia for a bygone era of American motoring before freeways. Besides, for the review, I rewatched “Cars” with the littlest Craggling and even at four years old, her questions were more about how the world of Cars worked and why things were the way they were than about the plot or characters.
All that being said, the racing sequences are energetic and thrilling enough if motor sports are your thing but there’s no escaping this is one of the weakest Pixar offerings, although that still places it in pole position compared to most other animated fare.