When Cars arrived in theaters back in 2006, it seemed as though it was tailor made for me. I’m a big fan of the car culture of the late 50s and early 60s, and especially Route 66. John Lasseter’s direction on the first Toy Story film and his attention to story have always captivated me. There was a lot of hype to live up to for Cars.
A film like this is difficult to categorize. The lead of the film, Lightning McQueen, is a cruel soul who mistreats others. The nostalgia for the former culture of Route 66 and the towns of the Southwest makes it more of a message film. The racing action incorporates elements of sports tension into the proceedings. Mater’s relationship with McQueen turns things into a buddy comedy at certain points. There’s also romance with Sally. This crazy stew of ideas mixes together to make Cars. So how does it work?
I can’t really say I understand it, but I know this movie makes sense. In watching the film, we see the transformation of Lightning McQueen from a self-centered maniac to a person (or car) who sees the world differently. McQueen becomes a fully realized individual who understands the value of the journey of life. That is a difficult concept to get across in a film, but Lasseter manages to make it work.
In the process, however, he also creates a new character that serves as comedy gold. Tow Mater, while really the heart and soul of Larry the Cable Guy, manages to break out of the film as something fun in an otherwise quite heavy story. Larry’s vocal work is outstanding, but so is the work of the writers and director in giving the character more to do than just spout funny one liners. Mater has depth. He is looking for a friend, and his journey is nearly as important to the film as McQueen’s.
Cars is a uniquely American film. After all, car culture was a product of the American society, and the idea of Route 66 is literally foreign to other countries. Lightning McQueen, despite his egotism, is also an American style hero. He undergoes a journey through life that broadens his mind, helps him grow and accomplishes his goal in the end. Not by winning the Piston Cup, but by discovering himself, does McQueen become a hero.
This is what makes Cars so wonderful. It’s a film that takes everything seriously, while taking place in an unreal world. The stakes are high throughout, but ultimately Cars reveals to us that the things we desire in life are not what gives life true meaning. True joy in life comes from the journey and the impact we can have on others. It’s a great message that resonates strongly throughout the film, making it a classic.