Upon release, Cars obtained mixed reviews to the general effect that it was good but not great and that the charmed touch that Pixar has enjoyed to date seems to have worn off at last. This was born out by the lower box-office that Cars enjoyed in comparison to other Pixar films. (It was still the third highest grossing film of 2006). One did not feel particularly disappointed with Cars. Certainly, it is the longest film that Pixar have made to date, coming in just short of two hours, and the children at the screening I was at tended to squirm through some of the length. Nevertheless, on all counts, Cars proves to be as much a delight as every other Pixar film has been to date.
Cars takes the concept that has been played in a number of other films notably Disneys long-running Herbie the Love Bug live-action films or the muchly ridiculed tv series My Mother, the Car (1965-6) of vehicles having personalities. Cars takes this to the logical extent of having vehicles with anthropomorphic features and being able to talk. It is an idea that has such a simple originality that it is a surprise that nobody has thought of it before. There is an enormous amount of fun to be had in seeing the cute twists that Pixar put on the idea anthropomorphised helicopters and fighter jets; tractors that act as herds of cattle; a crowd of RVs as spectators at the racetrack using their headlights to conduct a Mexican Wave; a shy fire truck that enjoys watering plants.
As always, Pixar create an array of distinctive characters that endear considerably, with much of the film being stolen by a cute Italian-accented forklift and a beat-up tow truck with a hayseed twang. There are numerous witty jokes packed away in the background Jay Leno lends his voice to a chatshow host vehicle called Jay Limo; there is a soundbite from an Arnold Schwarzenegger-accented vehicle that is the Governor of California, which is a Huwvee (a vehicle that Schwarzenegger has become famous for driving). The cutest joke is the one that plays over the end credits where instead of their usual animated outtakes, Pixar have a series of scenes at a drive-in, which are screening such car-themed variants on Pixars earlier films as Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks, Inc. and A Bugs Life (which naturally features a miniature Volkswagen). The funniest part of the scene is John Ratzenberger, who voices the role of the Mac truck, and sits making comments about how they must have cut costs by getting the same person to voice all the roles in the film, which are of course all voiced by him.
The lead character Lightning McQueens story arc that of the character who comes from the city life to a small town and gradually comes to find the appeal of the rural life is superior to life in the fast lane is a familiar one through tv series like Northern Exposure (1990-5) and Doc Martin (2004-9) to name but a couple. Pixar still manage to serve it up anew in a likeable and heartfelt way. John Lasseter, who was inspired by the culture of the USs Route 66 highway in making the film, adds an interesting social subtext about how interstate highways have ended up causing the death of a number of small towns after they ended up being locked off the main thoroughfare. (Lasseter himself is a collector of classic cars). This is not exactly a new concept it is at least as old as Psycho (1960), which echoed similar concerns. Here though, one can see that Lasseter has nostalgia for traditional values of Americana and mourns the passing of a cosier, friendlier way of life. It is a point he manages to make with some depth. It is certainly an interesting (and weighty) issue to come in an animated film that is ostensibly for children.
Pixar made two sequels with Cars 2 (2011) and Cars 3 (2017). Disney later spun the world of Cars off with Planes/World of Cars: Planes (2013) and Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014), which did the same for aircraft.