It’s strange that I can’t think about Cars without yawning because I actually had a decent enough time while watching it. Perhaps it’s because, from start to finish, it lacks a great deal of originality. Its plot is Doc Hollywood, but with anthropomorphized cars, and even if you haven’t seen Doc Hollywood, you’ll get all of its themes well before the film decides to tell them to you. It’s one of the few Pixar films that doesn’t play as well to adults as it does to children.
The plot sees a cocky racecar named Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) needing to get across the country in order to compete in a final race in order to potentially win the Piston Cup. He’s a rookie, and the Cup has never been won by a rookie before. However, he eventually finds himself stuck in a small and rundown town called Radiator Springs, and causes a lot of damage to it. He’s sentenced to fix the main road before he is allowed to leave, which will take several days. The race is in a week.
So, the cocky racecar has to learn the power of friendship, about how we need to remember our roots, and how taking the time to smell the roses leads to a more fulfilling life. Over the course of the film, he finds himself befriending a tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and a Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), all while causing trouble for the town’s oldest resident, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). The script basically writes itself at this point, and if you’re at all a participatory audience member, you’re going to see more or less exactly where it’s going to go at every turn.
It’s all perfectly fine (if you’re eight years old). It’s charming, it’s got a good message, there are a few spots of humor, and the visuals sometimes stun—although mostly they’re just serviceable. Perhaps the standards we’ve set for Pixar are so high at this point, or maybe Cars just isn’t as good as the studio’s previous efforts. It’s the first one, at the very least, that feels far more kid-focused than family-focused. Yes, there is a difference. A children’s movie and a movie for the entire family are different entities.
Cars is a pretty simple movie aimed at kids. If it wasn’t created by Pixar, we wouldn’t be giving it a second thought.
I guess my problems stem mostly from its predictability and its lack of conflict. Most of Cars wants to be about Lightning McQueen effectively growing up, which is an internal thing, and given that the characters are all talking cars, that’s not the easiest thing to portray. In addition, the path he takes to “grow” is so predictable that you’ll be able to figure out his entire character arc after about two scenes into the film.
Also, and I mean this in perhaps the nicest way I can: the humor is such that Larry the Cable Guy doesn’t seem out of place. Put a character voiced by him in Toy Story or The Incredibles and he’d feel out of place, but in Cars he fits right in, somehow. If you like his style of comedy, then you’ll probably find Cars funny, as a good chunk of the laughs are designed to come from him—or, a G-rated version of him, which kind of ruins his appeal, doesn’t it? (I’m genuinely asking; I seem to recall his material being at least somewhat “offensive” and R-rated, but maybe I’m thinking of someone else.)
At least Owen Wilson’s charm comes through, at least somewhat, in his leading voice role. You can’t really buy him as a cocky “I don’t care about anyone but myself” car but, eventually, what he transforms into fits the role much better. Paul Newman works well as a bitter old car, Bonnie Hunt is energetic as the love interest, George Carlin’s hippie van is a little funny, and … yeah, the voice work, on the whole, is perfectly fine, even if the characters are pretty bland and you’re not likely to remember more than a couple of them after the film is over.
Cars is a pretty simple movie aimed at kids. If it wasn’t created by Pixar, we wouldn’t be giving it a second thought, passing it off as another children’s movie that doesn’t really do a whole lot right or wrong, and will provide moderate entertainment to anyone that watches it. That’s really all it is. It’s Doc Hollywood with talking cars, and is nowhere near as interesting as that might sound. It’s predictable, kind of funny, and has a point, but it doesn’t have much impact behind anything it does.
Conclusion: Cars is a decent movie that doesn’t live up to Pixar’s lofty standards.
Recommendation: Cars is a mediocre movie and it’s only really worthwhile if you’re a kid.