It’s become the punching bag of Pixar, but after over a decade can’t we finally admit that Cars is underrated? The release of Cars 3 brings with it not only another merchandising blitz of cartoonish, anthropomorphized vehicles for children but also the chance for their parents and other adults to bemoan the Emeryville Titans’ reviled franchise. While most cinephiles tend to go rather easy on Pixar’s lesser work due to the usual immense quality of their output – indeed, The Good Dinosaur is most remarkable for being totally forgotten – when it comes to Cars the hate flows strong; you’ll usually see it and its sequel right at the bottom of rankings and often cited as actively bad.
We’ll take a look at actual quality later on, but for now let’s state that the first film was per the numbers a success – 74% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, $462 million at the worldwide box office and who knows how much more in merchandising. However, unlike previous Pixar films that had all played just as strong to adults as it had children (to the point where some more recent films, such as Up and Inside Out, have been accused of being too mature or complex for the U rating) it skewed to a much younger audience. Whereas the likes of Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. were deft classics, this felt more disposable as entertainment yet synergised as a brand.
Sure, Cars doesn’t hold a candle to Pixar’s best, but to act like not being top tier is somehow a failure when said top tier has some of the best films from the past twenty years in it is wholly unfair. Especially when you’ve got something as personal and misunderstood as Cars.
The Pre-Release Hate Colored Everything
Before we jump to how things evolved, it’s first important to note how much was working against Cars from the start. Whereas toys coming alive or monsters in the closet are universally relatable concepts – Pixar were just refining them – the idea behind Cars is more focused and thus niche; it’s not about our cars being alive but is instead centered on a world of vehicles. Within that the setting is mainly backwater hicks and Nascar tracks, two things that directly affront the coastal sensibilities of the studio’s previous films and the audience they’d built up. Throw in Larry the Cable Guy as support and you’ve made something that’s intrinsically going toffense offence.
That world distinction has been a point of ridicule since the project’s first look. The reveal of windshields being the eyes – as opposed to the universally accepted headlights – was widely derided to begin with and many a mocking piece has been constructed highlighting the confusing inconsistencies of biology and social structure in the Cars world (trying to explain this is pretty much the grounding of the unifying Pixar Theory). And, yes, for a company whose world building is usually so deft you don’t question the ridiculousness of how toys actually come to life or why pulling strands of hair allows humans to be used as puppets it’s certainly disappointing that everything seems to have been constructed for immediate gratification and easter eggs rather than coherent story.
But while this is the only time in the Pixar canon not dealing with a world hidden our own, rather a strange parallel, the resulting problems aren’t unique to Cars. In fact, it’s pretty much the case for any anthropomorphized society. The only example where it’s unquestionably done well and with purpose is Zootopia, and that was mainly because it raised it as a theme – the make up of the world is still of questionable logic. However, just as it didn’t harm Disney’s Oscar chances (Zootopia won Best Animated Feature) neither should it be taken as Cars’ major flaw. And, indeed, as time went by a new reason to dislike it emerged.