Quoting the late Walt Disney is fairly commonplace in the world of the Disney theme parks. Anywhere you walk in Disneyland or Walt Disney World, you’ll see a quote attributed to Disney, whether or not the quote is totally accurate. (He may not have said, in so many words, “If you dream it, you can do it,” for example.) One quote that is prevalent and does belong to him can be spotted in a plaque at the gateway between the entrance plaza to the Magic Kingdom (or Disneyland Park) and Main Street, U.S.A.: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” In short, if you allow yourself to submit to the cloistered theme-park worlds within, you are essentially engaging in a potent, immediate form of escapism.
And so it’s quite fitting that the world of Cars has become, over the last few years, such a presence at the Disney theme parks, for what is the series—specifically the 2006 film—but a headlong escape of nostalgia into the past? Because of how heavy a presence the two movies have now in the parks—from a Mater topiary in the Japan section of Epcot’s World Showcase to tie into his globetrotting adventures in Cars 2, to an entire land being built in Disney California Adventure, inspired by the original Cars—many fans have a lower opinion of the characters in and around Radiator Springs. They see Lightning McQueen and Mater as something of a scourge, while others take the simpler, more enthusiastic, less cynical route and embrace the characters wholeheartedly.
Today, we’ll also take a positive angle in looking at Cars and its Pixar Moment. (Patent still pending, strangely enough. Come on, U.S. Patent Office.) This 2006 film will, for many (including this writer), always have a number of unsolvable problems, from the lack of logic of how the world of this movie could ever function to its languorous pace and length. (At 116 minutes, Cars is Pixar’s longest film to date, just barely.) One aspect of the film (really, an aspect of every recent Pixar film) everyone should be able to agree on is the exquisite animation. It’s awfully tempting to say that Cars, in spite of all its flaws, is the most photorealistic film Pixar has produced as of this writing. If nothing else, those animators who worked on Cars seem to believe so; watching the film again, it’s striking to note how the laid-back pace is partially thanks to countless shots of the desert vistas of Radiator Springs; of the shadows of vehicles temporarily painting the dry landscape black; of sleek, shiny metal creating reflective portraits of surrounding natural beauty.
The animation is shoved into the spotlight throughout Cars, but no more obviously than in its Pixar Moment, roughly 65 minutes into the film. Lightning McQueen has spent enough time in Radiator Springs to soften his brittle, selfish exterior, and is in the process of falling for Sally, a flashy Porsche who used to be a big-city lawyer but has since settled down in this small, rundown town that has seen better days. (There is no way for that sentence to not sound a touch silly, seeing as these characters are cars, if not for all their human traits.) Sally encourages him to, for the first time, just take a drive around, not to rush past the world he inhabits, but to appreciate it for once. Lightning and Sally do just that, in a sequence that doesn’t last more than four minutes, but is mostly wordless. Sally leads Lightning around the winding roads, passing by impressive, awe-inspiring landscapes and natural wonders. Throughout this montage, Lightning’s entire being is shifted; in essence, he learns to stop and smell the roses, culminating in a moment where he is truly dumbstruck at the grandeur of Mother Nature.
What makes this sequence so potent now is that it reflects, on an almost primitive level, that infamous Walt Disney quote. Radiator Springs is, for Lightning McQueen, a miniature version of a Disney theme park. Here, he leaves behind the vagaries of the real world, from his flashy transportation to his in-truck massaging, and enters a remnant of the past. Much is made in Cars about the idea that the world was better in the past, that when freeways got installed nationwide, the charm of little towns like Radiator Springs vanished because everyone else ignored them. And what is Disneyland or Walt Disney World if not an attempt to stoke the flames of nostalgia, to make us wistful for a past we never experienced, one that probably didn’t exist? Few, if any, people who walk under the bridge separating the ticket booth and Main Street, U.S.A. can claim to have lived through such an idyll, yet it often feels achingly familiar.
When we watch Cars, we are being thrust into the familiar, and intentionally so. The plot itself is exceptionally predictable, and feels mostly cribbed from, among other stories, the Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood. But the longing for a past—perhaps ironic coming from a studio that has pioneered cutting-edge filmmaking technology—is very much of a piece with John Lasseter’s mentality. In movies like this, we see an almost childlike attempt to avoid the complexities and darkness of the real world. As discussed recently here, Cars is not a film with a particularly odious villain. Lightning himself is arguably the least likable character in the movie—Chick Hicks, his racing rival, is a more obvious antagonist, but he’s only in about 15 minutes and is so flamboyant as voiced by Michael Keaton that he’s kind of charming, if weaselly—but the montage, that Pixar Moment, is his turning point. Lightning’s self-centered attitude vanishes as he lets the world in.
Basically, Lightning McQueen allows himself to enter a shielding bubble, something that can only be penetrated when the entire world he left behind literally descends upon him at the end of the extended second act. Lightning has rushed through his life—how long that life has been, we may never know—and now that he’s slowed down and stopped thinking solely about himself, he’s a changed man—er, car. On the face of it, Lightning doesn’t totally turn away from his modern lifestyle, and it’s not as if his burgeoning romance with Sally is wholly representative of ignoring his big-city past. Both cars have a passion for living at a slower pace, achieving a kind of balance between the highs and lows the universe has to offer. On a wide scale, Cars is about appreciating the slower pace of life—because the film takes that lesson too much to heart, it’s not wholly successful. But that short montage, one that could’ve gone on as long as the film itself, is a home run.
The less charitable person could watch this film’s Pixar Moment and see it as a bit of grandstanding from Pixar’s animators. “Look at we can do, folks. Just look. We’ll give you time to be as breathless as Lightning, don’t worry.” Most of Pixar’s greatest moments, whether moving or thrilling or funny, typically do not feel like showing off, or they don’t feel primarily like an excuse to flaunt the talents of those people working on the films. This one does, but the animation in this sequence, and throughout Cars, is so striking, beautiful, and jaw-droppingly true to life that it doesn’t matter. The Pixar animators earn the right to show off here. Were it not for the deliberately cartoonish faces of the two cars in the scene, you might be legitimately fooled and assume the roads, the trees, the cliff faces, were places any of us can visit.
And at its best, when you walk through the Disney theme parks, from Radiator Springs in Disney California Adventure to New Orleans Square in Disneyland Park to the Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you get a similar feeling. The Disney Imagineers have spent a long time putting the wool over our eyes, not only in making us forget the real world encroaching on the parks, but in making us believe the environments they create are more real than anything we’ve experienced in our lives. No matter which park you’re in, no matter which land you walk through, however, half of that feeling, of entering an enveloping space that’s outside of reality yet bucking up against it, is on each of us. Like Lightning McQueen, we have to submit to the pleasures and wonders of the “natural” world; otherwise, we coast through life with blinders on.
Cars is, even a few years after its release and separate of its unfortunate 2011 sequel, a film that’s more fascinating to discuss because of what’s outside the film, not inside it. The character work is somewhat thin, and the plot more familiar than anything else in Pixar’s filmography to date. (Yes, A Bug’s Life is derivative—or reminiscent, if you’re being kind—of Seven Samurai and Three Amigos, but as it’s fleeter and funnier, it’s slightly better than Cars.) Visually, Cars is the most challenging film Pixar has ever made, because outside of the eyes and mouths of the characters, the animators made themselves animate our world, as correctly as possible, down to the bits of debris on pavement that get kicked up when a car zooms down a freeway or even a beat-up old road. The film’s message, even when transmitted through too-predictable plot machinations, comes to life best without dialogue, without a song whose lyrics are unsubtle and too plaintive, without anything but images of a world so gorgeous that you can’t help but be awed to exist alongside it.