Consciously or not, we often look for the existence of the human in the art we consume. Sometimes, that presence is visible, and sometimes it’s just outside of the frame of the filmmaker’s camera or the words on the author’s page or inches away from the artist’s canvas. But we want and expect some form of humanity to be present in what we watch or read. In film, this manifests differently in live-action versus animation, the latter of which has been criticized for the “uncanny valley” effect, when human characters are rendered in such a way that’s off-putting, distracting for perhaps being too realistic, uncomfortably human. Pixar Animation Studios has not yet fallen into the uncanny valley, but it’s interesting to watch the evolution of their computer-animation technology from as far back as their pre-feature shorts up to Brave, in part because so much of their work is infused with the presence of humans even when none physically appear. Except for the films in the Cars franchise.
If you’ve avoided most discussion of the Cars films and haven’t seen them, then traveled to the Disney theme parks, especially the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, you might assume they’re widely beloved. How could a movie series that inspired its own land in a theme park not be well-liked? Popularity among children aside, specifically in toy stores, there’s a vast swath of film lovers and Pixar fans who hold the Cars series in contempt, for feeling more like cash grabs than stories with relatable, engaging characters that happen to make a ton of money. Now that Disney has announced the voice cast of Planes, the first Cars spin-off film (yet a movie that is technically not from Pixar), these people have once again been reminded that a) Planes is a movie that exists, and b) Cars and Cars 2 also exist, as much as we may wish to forget them. The key, perhaps, to the reason why these films are perceived as such disappointments may be a total lack of the human.
Financial success aside, the Cars franchise is widely considered to be the true black mark in Pixar’s filmography, and it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a correlation between that fact and the truth that there is no human presence in these films. In the Toy Story films, humanity is often emphasized as an antagonistic force. Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of our friends are able to overcome adversity throughout the trilogy, typically by besting what they see as obstacles and what we see as modern society. In Finding Nemo, humanity is represented as equally villainous, our well-meaning attempts to take fish as pets presented as being careless and selfish. In Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life, and even WALL-E, the story’s the same, in that humans are presented as a negative force, a force of destruction of some kind. In The Incredibles, Up, and Brave, among others, we are the protagonists, human characteristics no longer being transposed on the previously inanimate.
But there’s something deeper present in these films: it’s not just that humanity is around nonhuman characters, or that they must triumph over humanity. Characters like Woody, WALL-E, and Remy do not just have to supersede the social mores of humanity; they observe our society in hopes of emulating it. When we first meet Woody in Toy Story, he presides over a makeshift town-hall meeting in advance of their owner Andy’s birthday party. In future films, we see other toys on the Internet, playing video games, staging crime scenes, and more, ideas they only picked up from the world around them. WALL-E, famously, is knowledgeable in love and romance only through his repeated viewings of Hello, Dolly, hoping to replicate the connection between two of its characters in his own life. And Remy strives for the worldliness achieved by Chef Auguste Gusteau in Ratatouille, believing that if any one human can cook, then surely nothing can stop him. These characters must still overcome their human masters or superiors, but in doing so, they wish to be equally human.
The world of Cars has no humanity in it, either to oppose or emulate. The absence of the human has inspired more initial debates. Some people have wondered, frustrated, exactly how this universe came to be, if we’re meant to accept it as real as the world depicted in WALL-E, Toy Story, or A Bug’s Life. How did the cars first get made? How do new cars get made? Do cars procreate? How? And so on. Personifying that which has no life isn’t automatically the problem for Pixar. We love the films they’ve made predominantly about toys, monsters, bugs, robots, and fish, but all of those movies take place, functionally, in our world. Children of all ages thrill at the Toy Story franchise because the question at its core—what if those objects we own that we may treat as real actually are real—inflames the imagination. Pixar’s films explore the “What if?” scenarios of many aspects of our lives, allowing these inhuman characters to act and think like us, without ever forgetting that they don’t have the same power we do.
In the Cars world, power goes unchecked. Think, for example, of the original Cars from 2006, a movie that, by and large, does not have an antagonistic force. Yes, you could posit Chick Hicks, Lightning McQueen’s rival, as the bad guy, a potentially unstoppable villain who must be taken down. You could even say Lightning is the true antagonist, his bullheadedness endearing him to no one in Radiator Springs until he has a massive personality shift. But consider Cars and these possible bad guys in the context of every other Pixar film. Sid Phillips, Hopper, Stinky Pete, Randall Boggs, Syndrome, Chef Skinner, Otto the auto-pilot, Charles Muntz, Lots-O’ Huggin’ Bear, Mordu…these are easily memorable villains, even if some stand out more than others. You don’t have to wonder who the antagonists in the non-Cars movies are. They’re as clear as day. Perhaps none are as potent as Scar or Ursula or Maleficent from the Disney animated canon, but Pixar has created equally fearsome bad guys.
Cars has none of that. (Yes, Cars 2 has a bad guy, as it’s a throwback to old-fashioned spy thrillers, but not one as easy to recall as, say, Syndrome.) Because the world is so odd, and poorly established, it’s easy to realize the flaws and that these films have no human touch. Is it wrong to ask such questions as wondering how cars can have babies? No, especially if such questions represent a personal obstacle to enjoyment, but you have to wonder if John Lasseter—for whom Cars was a passion project—has or even cares to have an answer. It’s a bit reminiscent of an anecdote the iconic Broadway producer and director Harold Prince has told, of being offered the directing job for Cats, the enormously popular stage show from the minds of Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Prince, after being told the premise, asked Nunn and Webber if he was missing some allegory where the cats stood in modern or past English royalty. After pausing, Webber said, “Hal. It’s about cats.”
And, sadly, there is no greater meaning within the world of Mater, Lightning McQueen, and friends. These movies are about cars (or planes). Their aspirations are low, not to evolve into humans, simply to relax, content to stay the same, to relax and avoid change. No doubt, you can reductively state that Pixar’s other films are just about those toys, bugs, and so forth, but these movies do not deny or ignore the vast world around these characters. Woody and friends do not live in a vacuum. Lightning McQueen does. It’s not that the basic idea—humanizing our cars—is outrageous. It’s that the more you think about this concept, the less possible it is to make any sense. Allowing cars to see through their windshields, using their grilles as mouths, is clever. But the world of Cars is happy being clever like that, a Flintstones for the 21st century, all surface pleasures. Who drives these cars? They do. How do they get oil changes? Other cars perform that service. The list goes on, each idea a layer of illogic piled on top of one another until it falls apart like a precariously toppling game of Jenga.
The conundrum is that the Cars films will always feel wanting because humanity is nowhere to be seen, but to add humanity would make render the films moot. There’s no fix for this problem, but the absence of humanity is galling because it doesn’t allow these movies to have a greater, more profound impact. This is not to say that you don’t have a personal tie to this movie, that you or your children may not find something to love or embrace in Mater or in Doc Hudson, but the almost-visible Pixar touch, that all-encompassing feeling that what’s displayed on screen is both intensely personal and totally universal, is absent in these films. Pixar, at its best, does not make movies that feel as if they were expressly made to sell toys, perhaps because the characters do not feel like catchphrase machines, but things that feel like people, things we can relate to for their neuroses and desires.
The characters in Cars do not feel human, and they don’t aspire to be as such. From the descriptions—and yes, it is an iffy proposition to jump to any concrete conclusions this way—provided, Planes may not break the mold come August 9. Perhaps this is one of the reasons some people have felt so let down by Pixar in relation to these movies: we know how it appears to come easy to Pixar’s filmmakers and animators to create indelible, iconic characters who are as human as us. When they create a world so devoid of humanity, literally and figuratively, it’s almost worse than revealing that they can make mistakes, that these filmmakers and animators are as human as us, as capable of screwing up as us. Aiming to a crasser financial instinct instead of marrying art and commerce is a synthetic attempt at providing monetary value, something we have always wanted Pixar to not stoop to. We want Pixar’s filmmakers to be us at our best, to strive to evolve to something purer and more intelligent.
The world of Cars aside, Pixar remains a bellwether of quality in Hollywood. The visceral, sometimes too emotional reactions people have at the news of a sequel or of some addition to the universe of a film series they dislike speak to this power. We want Pixar to be perfect, so badly, that it is a crushing disappointment every time they own up to their innate humanity. So maybe it’s not true that Cars, Cars 2, and the upcoming Planes—which, again, is not a Pixar film; try saying that as a mantra every day to calm yourself down—boast an absence of the human. The problem is that humanity is present on the wrong side of the computer.