Thursday, July 30, 2020

"I'd Give My Left Two Lugnuts For Somethin' Like That!": A Look Back At Disney/PIXAR's Cars

I have a confession to make: I collected die-cast vehicle versions of the Cars characters.

Two examples of the die-cast Cars vehicles I collected for years.
Yes, all those billions of merchandising dollars Cars raked in each year for so long? A good chunk of that came from my family. I was obsessed with this toyline for eight years. In that time, I was determined to get every single one of those die-cast figures from the first Cars movie (the second one, eh, not so much). Luckily, Mattel made hundreds of these toys for me to collect. In 2020, they're in a bin somewhere in my bedroom. But for years, I displayed them proudly, my dozens of Mater variants and my die-cast toy version of Hamm the Piggy Bank Truck.

Years later, I still ponder why, exactly, did I become such a Cars fanatic? It wasn't even like it was my favorite PIXAR movie as a kid (that honor belongs to Ratatouille and Toy Story). After a lot of thought, though, I've come to a theory. Collecting these toys provided some stability to my rocky Middle School and High School years. That portion of my life was full of unexpected ups, down's and everything in between. Middle School and High School are full of challenges for everybody. Yet, I was also grappling with my parents' divorce, moving to a new house, and other unique obstacles during this time of my life.

Between 2006 and 2014, I never knew what was gonna happen next. But when it came to those Cars toys, I could always rely on the Wal-Mart toy aisle to have new merchandise. I could always rely on those figures looking like their film counterparts. When you're in a desert, you don't get picky about where the rare drop of water comes from. Similarly, when you're going through turbulent teenager years, you don't quarrel with finding solace to be in the toyline for a so-so PIXAR movie.

Also making the Cars toyline entrancing was the universe of Cars. Much like how Star Wars took every throwaway patron of the Mos Eisley Cantina and gave them a backstory, Cars took every one of its automobiles and gave them a name you could slap on a diecast toy. This was accomplished through a Blu-Ray bonus feature where you could click on any automobile in a given scene and discover their name. Suddenly, background extras became Chuck Choke Cables and Timothy "Timezone" Truecoat.

It was a shrewd marketing technique that ensured they could make merchandise out of more than just Lighting McQueen and the denizens of Radiator Springs. However, it also fueled (no pun intended) the imagination of twelve-year-old Douglas Laman. Every frame of Cars was packed with characters whose names I could memorize, whose toy I could collect, whose lives I could become immersed in. There was a finite quality to the hidden-in-plain-sight world of Toy Story and A Bug's Life. With Cars, the world stretched endlessly onward.

The merchandising for Cars captivated me for years. The film, though, less so. Even when I was ten-years-old and seeing it for the first time, the cracks were evident. There was a reason it never became as special to me as, say, Finding Nemo. Revisiting it for the first time in years just last night, the problems were especially evident now. Most of them come from our protagonist, Lightning McQueen. He daydreams about securing big sponsorships. He thinks every woman who drives in his path is there to fawn over him. Most notable, Lighting sees everyone else around him as just means to another racetrack victory.
Obviously, Lightning McQueen just isn't that interesting of a character. He's also plagued by being miscast. Owen Wilson proves a poor choice to voice the cocky racecar. Wilson's made a career out of playing laidback soft-spoken dudes in everything from the works of Wes Anderson to The Internship. Kudos at least to Wilson for stepping outside of his wheelhouse in taking this role. In the mid-2000s, so many comedians were basically just playing animal/robot/whatever versions of themselves in animated comedies. Remember Zach Braff in Chicken Little or Ben Stiller in Madagascar?  At least Wilson took a PIXAR voice acting gig as a chance to try something new.

That commendable quality can't erase the fact that Wilson's vocal performance just doesn't work for Lightning. Approaching 40 when Cars was released in 2006, Wilson already sounds too old to be a young "rookie sensation". Meanwhile, anytime he has to portray the abrasive side of McQueen, he just pushes it to an unlikeable extreme. There's no sense of charm in Wilson's voice work, he just makes Lightning sound like the obnoxious son of a billionaire. Of course, there's only so much the miscast Wilson can do with a role as poorly-written as Lightning McQueen.

Let's take a moment to compare Lighting McQueen to another grouchy PIXAR protagonist, Carl Fredrickson from Up. Fredrickson does all kinds of mean-spirited things in his time on-screen in Up, including dreaming about dangling a kid outside of his floating house. But Up opened with a prologue that established Carl's love for Ellie and how much her death caused him to become a withdrawn shell of himself. We understand why he's cranky, why he's not open to the idea of connecting with other people. By contrast, Lightning is just a rich brat with an abrasively mean-spirited disposition.

There's nothing in to explain why he's this way or why we should care about him finding redemption. We're rooting for Carl to find himself again. It's far harder to even be interested in Lighting McQueen.

The other characters of Cars are similarly a gaggle of one-note stereotypes that are hard to get invested in. Among the residents of the small town of Radiator Springs are a pair of Italian Fiat's, a love interest car (of course that's the most prominent role a woman's gonna get in a John Lasseter movie) and a bastard. There's a handful of funny moments between them, but they're just not that interesting. This flaw undercuts a supposedly poignant flashback sequence set to James Taylor's Our Town depicting the Radiator Springs denizens being left behind after a highway was constructed. I'm sorry Cars, but I'm never going to cry over a scene involving a character played by Larry the Cable Guy.

I do wonder if the fact that Cars featured such disposable characters made the toys of silent background characters all the more enticing for kids like me. Ramone, for example, was pretty firmly-established in the movie as a forgettable caricature. But, say, Patty? She never even gets a line! Nobody knows what her personality is like! Kids who own her toy can create their own personality for her. In the process, they can make characters who are notable improvements over the ones in Cars.

Despite the fact that Cars features some of the weaker characters in the PIXAR canon, the second half of the movie does begin to pick up steam. Previously, Cars was packed full of fart gags and noisy jokes. These elements were executed in an obligatory fashion, it didn't feel like any of the numerous screenwriters on Cars had their heart in watching tractors fart. However, as Cars slows down and allows Lightning to share quiet scenes with Mater and Sally, Cars finds a groove it's much more comfortable in.

Then, the third act, depicting Lightning McQueen at his big race joined by his Radiator Springs pals, comes alone and works shockingly well in spite of the flaws of Cars. The writing still leans too heavily towards the obvious. More puzzling is the fact that supposedly important characters to Lightning like Sally and Mater are pretty much superfluous to the entire race. Sally just stays back at Radiator Springs and watches the race on a TV! Still, the crowdpleaser moments, like little Guido showing up a group of cocky forklifts, work more often than they don't. The pivotal moment of Lightning choosing to help damaged rival racer The King rather than win the race also works to an impressive degree.

It'd be better if Lighting had been a more engaging character up to that point, sure. But there's no denying that Lightning's uttering of "A grumpy old racecar once told me it's just an empty cup", in reference to the Piston Cup trophy, does work at tugging at the heartstrings. Plus, Cars also contains a fun mid-credits gag where John Ratzenberger makes fun of his own requisite PIXAR cameos, which might be the funniest bit in the whole movie.

As a movie, Cars is kind of a mess. It stars an unlikeable character going through a predictable character arc whose best friend is played by Larry the Cable Guy. That sentence makes it all sound like the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. However, a good number of individual scenes do work in spite of the movie's flaws. The writers of Cars know how to executing satisfying pay off's (like Lightning using Mater's backward driving technique during his final race). The road getting to those destinations, though, that needs work.

Of course, one can't talk about Cars without mentioning Paul Newman. In his last non-documentary film role, Newman lends an appropriate weight of lived-in gravitas to the role of Doc Hudson. Though he didn't get to appear in the greatest PIXAR film, it's still lovely that automobile fanatic Paul Newman got to end his acting career appearing in a gigantic blockbuster hit like Cars.

Mostly every movie PIXAR has made is better than the original Cars (I think Cars 2 might be the only that's worse) Still, there's no denying that the world of Cars grabbed my imagination (and my parents' wallet!) like no other PIXAR film. It's still hard for me to even formulate why a movie this flawed managed to inspire me to become an avid collector of its merchandise. The road of life takes us down some pretty unexpected places, huh? Sometimes it's to a place like Radiator Springs, sometimes it's to unusual hobbies.
In retrospect, I can't imagine why I'd ever collected these toys.

By the same token, at the age of fifteen, I couldn't have imagined I would ever give up collecting Cars diecast vehicles!

At this current point on the road of life, I'm able to recognize that Cars is a deeply flawed movie. It utilizes a number of hackneyed narrative devices, its lead character is a mess. To boot, Cars is one of the most egregious examples of how PIXAR's movies predominately sideline women characters.

Yet, I'm also grateful for it. Cars spawned a toyline that provided me with a lot of joy and stability in years of my life that were rife with hardship and uncertainty. That's not nothing.

Thank you Cars for that. And also thank you for also delivering the absolute banger of a song Real Gone by Sheryl Crowe.

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