Unpopular Opinion: Cars
Written by:Alex Keen
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
CARS is one of my favorite Pixar movies. There, I wrote it. The oft-maligned race car movie, featuring the voice talent of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, and Larry the Cable Guy, is a film that I havent always liked, but grew to love it after enough viewings. As with most opinions about movies, my love of CARS is due to my own circumstances and transcends the quality of the film itself. Its the memory that makes this movie great.
CARS was the first movie that my now two years old son really enjoyed. It was his love of cars, trucks, and other vehicles that lead to me buying this Blu-ray and putting it in my player. Despite seeing and disliking CARS once before, I gave the movie a second chance on the hunch that he might like it. Not only was this hunch correct, it lead to me watching CARS multiple times for the next year (probably 30-40 times total). My opinion, having initially been shaped by boundless amounts of cynicism and elitism, was revised; now, not only did I enjoy this movie, but I began to reinterpret how I watch movies.
I clearly remember the first time I saw CARS, the list of problems I had with the movie: Owen Wilson lacks any charisma as Lightning McQueen, the middle act is slow as molasses, and Larry the Cable Guy is a redneck pathetic waste of space. These problems blinded me to what was just beneath the surface that was really good.
My initial perspective of Owen Wilson lacking charisma would change as I put his character under scrutiny. What I missed at the beginning was the idea that Lightning McQueen was not intended to be likable. He wasnt supposed to be nice or funny. He wasnt supposed to be charming or smart. Lightning McQueen is an arrogant son-of-a-bitch that got everything in life and never faced adversity. (While John Lasseter reveals that Michael Jordan was the model for McQueen, I think that Kobe Bryant is a much better comparison.) Once I realized this, I didnt look to Lightning for laughs. Instead, I focused on the jokes that were just beyond his antics.
Specifically, I spent a lot of my time enjoying the charms Mack, voiced by Pixar Hall of Famer, John Ratzenberger. As Mack, Ratzenberger doesnt have a lot of screen time; however, when he is present Ratzenberger delivers his best voice acting performance in a Pixar film. Better than any of his work in the TOY STORY series, UP, MONSTER INC., etc. Not only is Ratzenberger funny, but his performance provides shape and reality for a movie that exists in a world different from our own.
My second issue with CARS was the movies slow middle act. You know, the part when Lightning McQueen gets stuck in Radiator Springs. I will concede that the message of life moving too fast is a bit heavy-handed during this portion. However, unlike many naysayers do, I dont blame the failure of this act on Larry the Cable Guy. I blame it the filmmakers overwhelming desire to make sure that this movie has some kind of message - even to their own downfall.
In the case of Larry the Cable Guy, Ill gladly defend his performance. First, hes there for comic relief. Hell, hes there for comic relief for an age group too young to successfully express themselves in writing. So, give the character a break. Mater was never designed to be a character that does anything beyond chewing on hay, farting out exhaust, or shouting at the top of his lungs Get r done!
Larry the Cable Guys presence, in the scope of things, is not exactly dominating. He pops in, makes some goofy faces, throws in some silly one-liners, and scoots along. Its not like they shape the whole movie around him. And, for my money, the tractor tipping diversion was one of the funniest scenes of the film. Sure, its stupid, but its a visceral experience that kids can get and everyone else can connect with. Tractor tipping is a quintessential Pixar bit that deserves to remembered alongside best theyve ever made.
Finally, this might not be a comparison that you agree with, but as Ive aged its an opinion that I will not change: Mater is the C-3PO of this movie. Hes there for the most base reasons: to present basic emotions clearly and cleanly, to present context for decisions made by other characters, and, if youve watched STAR WARS enough, easy to ignore after a while. Initially, Mater and C-3PO exist to hold moviegoers hands (of all ages) through the story. However, by the end of the movie or after multiple viewings, they are expendable. For me, thats okay and their existence is necessary for storytelling purposes.
Now that Ive defended those aspects of CARS that seem to be the easiest to criticize, Id like to share with you some of the other great parts of this movie. Beyond Ratzenbergers stellar turn as Mack, there are several other side characters that deserve recognition. First, Michael Keatons work as Chick Hicks is especially good. While Owen Wilson plays the arrogant rookie well, Keaton presents a lovable dummy that wears his mustache well. If youre like me, youve missed the comedic work of Keaton since live-action career seems to have drifted away from him. Hes great as Chick and steals every scene hes in. Im glad to see that his work with Pixar didnt end with CARS.
A couple of other performances that are worth mentioning are Tony Shalhoub as Luigi and Paul Newman as Doc Hudson. From my perspective, some of the best jokes are delivered by Shalhoub as Luigi and his (silent) partner Guido. I hate to refer back to STAR WARS again, but the best bits between Luigi and Guido are comparable to the best repartee between C-3PO and R2D2. And Newmans work, also his final film work, is perfectly curmudgeonly endearing at the same time. Hopefully, it will open kids eyes to his filmography as they get older. It presents a fascinating counterpoint when considering that Newmans protege in the film is named... McQueen.
Finally, the best part of the CARS is the movies ending. Specifically, the final race featuring Lightning, Chick Hicks, and The King. Unlike almost every kids movie ever made, at the end of the race, Lightning is not the big winner. Sure, he wins in the game of life, but the actual victory goes to Chick. Yup, the bad guy wins the big race even if he was being a gigantic dick. For me this ending sends a couple of different messages: a) you dont have to win the big race to win, b) you dont always have to win at all, and c) you can learn more by losing and losing gracefully. Not only are these great lessons for kids, they are great lessons for all of us. Furthermore, I am just stoked to see a surprise ending that is different from what is to be expected.
I dont think or expect that I will win you all over. However, I will forever remain a staunch defender of the quality and value of CARS. Its a great movie with a lot of great characters that dont deserve to be slighted just because you have an issue with Larry the Cable Guy (aka Dan Whitney).