Is Merchandisable Pixar Inherently Bad?
Stepping beyond those base-level early criticisms and looking at the film and its impact, the enduring problem people seem to have with Cars is the toys. Or rather, the way everything appears to be have been crafted with toys in mind.
Indeed, out of all Cars' successes, the one that people most readily point towards is the merchandising. Even more so than Toy Story, it is Pixar's biggest income for auxiliary sales; action figures obviously but also bedsheets and bags and clothing and basically anything you could smack Lightning McQueen's face onto it. As some people tell it, it was less a movie than it was a marketing exercise. The fact the second film (which we will not be defending) wound up being the undebatable worst film from the studio while adding even more vehicles (with a boy-baiting spy theme to boot) certainly didn't help matters, but to many it was taken as was more proving the point; Cars was the big business Disney-ification of the once creative Pixar.
To a degree, this is hardly debatable. That headlight/windshield switch-up is explicitly done to give every character wide-eyed expressions that simply convey emotion and the designs of the characters are so rounded down and cartoonish they're almost focus grouped with Hasbro. Add to that the sheer scale of the world, and you can read Cars as a massive toy commercial.
However, that's really a rather simple reading of the Pixar process. After all, this design approach true of most animated films - from humans to emotions - and not just done to develop merchandise; if you're making a movie targeted at a young demographic you need each character to be recognisable and evocative. Look at Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully, Carl and Russell; they're all exaggerated for visual storytelling to a young age range first and foremost. As that one good joke about headlights in Cars 2 highlighted, the characters were to a degree made as they are to be likable for the movie's runtime above all else.
It's important to understand the creative angling of all this. After all, the film comes from John Lasseter; he's the man who first kick-started Pixar as an animation house and later became head of Disney Animation shortly after Cars' release, whose first move was to can the studio's seemingly incessant attempts to tarnish its legacy with straight-to-video sequels for all its classics. He's a creative man first and foremost, balancing corporate and artistic. We've seen compromising similar issues with Disney/Pixar's relationship come from the company's move into sequels; Andrew Stanton admitted Finding Dory was a top-down request but clarified that by saying they he and his team were given time to get it right.
From everything we know, Cars was definitely eyed as a merchandising behemoth by the distributor but was developed by the studio to be as good as it could be in the director's eyes. Contrary to criticism, Cars is focused. The underlying problem is that adult audiences can't grasp one key detail of that - it's made for kids.
- Cars 3 (2017) release date: Jun 16, 2017