“Cars” is a seriously problematic movie

Cars, the 2006 animated Pixar film about talking automobiles, is a movie that I have a strange fascination with. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, strictly speaking, though it’s definitely among the weaker Pixar films. There are actually some things about the movie that I find quite charming, namely the detailed portrayal of a Route 66 town past its prime. But every time I watch it, what seems to be a perfectly innocent and inoffensive children’s movie on its surface is disrupted by something noxious bubbling from its depths.

Firstly, let’s set aside any questions about how this world of sentient automobiles came to be, or how a world could be populated by a technology made for the conveyance of humans when no humans apparently exist. I’m not interested in those YouTube theories about how the cars in the movie are actually inhabited by the souls of dead humans or how they’re the sole survivors of some kind of global extinction event or the products of a nanotechnology outbreak or God knows what else. (Granted, it doesn’t help that the movie evokes these questions of car biology, like the throw-away visual gag of a bunch of female cars waiting in line at a ladies’ room.)

Cars is a morality tale, and the characters in the movie—like the anthropomorphic animals of other animated films—are meant to be seen as analogous to humans, but in a form that audience members will find more endearing. As Chuck Jones said, “it is easier and more believable to humanize animals than it is to humanize humans.”

No, my problems have to do with the story itself. Firstly, it has a rather anti-city message. The protagonist, a race car named Lightning McQueen, is a hot-shot celebrity who lives a very superficial existence. That is, until he accidentally finds himself stuck in the small town of Radiator Springs, where the wholesome country auto folk—the volkswagen, if you will—humble McQueen and teach him to be a better person. One of the cars he meets, a Porsche who becomes his love interest, tells her story of fleeing the rat race of city life, discovering Radiator Springs and becoming enchanted by the small town, an experience which turns her into the town’s loudest advocate.

Of course, celebrating the values of small-town America is a literary tradition older than dirt. Our culture is full of stories of crude city-slickers whose souls are cleansed by wholesome rural people. The Jeffersonian romanticism of the countryside and its inhabitants is deeply ingrained in our cultural history, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the United States has become a very urbanized nation. It’s just too common to bother getting offended over.

Cars, however, undercuts that traditional narrative in a bizarre way. At the end of the movie, an enlightened McQueen “saves” the town by moving there and drawing public attention to it, bringing the tourists with him. All of the hard work put in by the townsfolk to try and get their town back on the map (literally) ultimately doesn’t amount to much of anything. The car that put the most work into putting Radiator Springs back on the map—the Porsche that becomes McQueen’s love interest—gets virtually no credit for all her effort. So that’s lesson #1: if your local economy is struggling, find someone famous to endorse your town. Good luck with that!

Also, what does it say that the cars who do the most to revive the town are not the long-time residents, but the city-slickers who found themselves there? All of the small business owners in town are aching for customers, but for the most part they seem to have found a quiet, content existence in Radiator Springs. It’s the Porsche—a former lawyer, representing the professional class—who keeps insisting that there’s a problem that must be fixed. In short, it’s the city-slickers that “fix” the town, and everyone else just goes along with it. It’s not a resourceful local populace that figures out how to boost the town’s fortunes, but rather the outsiders that lift the town.

But what exactly they lift the town into remains uncertain. Radiator Springs is fundamentally altered by the events of the movie, and everyone is treating it as a return to the good ol’ days of Route 66. But the world has changed, and the world will have different expectations of their tourist destinations. Is it reasonable to assume that Radiator Springs will remain the quiet, humble town that captured the Porsche’s heart? Perhaps the writers want to suggest that the tourists that visit Radiator Springs will be enchanted and purified by its slower way of life, but isn’t it more likely that the town will be transformed into a trendy and pricey hot-spot, much like other mountain west tourist towns such as Durango and Sedona?

As tourists come from far and wide to see this town that captivated the famous Lightning McQueen, I imagine a resulting gentrification of Radiator Springs. Wealthy cars, delighted by the local scenery, buy property in the hills above the town. Frank, the local farmer, sells his land and his tractors for a tidy sum and retires elsewhere. The hippie van is the next to leave, murmuring something about the vibes being off; the town isn’t what it was, and his niche product fails to capture the interest of the new, wealthier denizens of Radiator Springs. Sarge, the army truck who always stated his annoyance of his peacenik neighbor, soon follows; his veteran benefits can’t cover the higher property costs, and besides, what use does this new customer base have for his army surplus store? Flo and Ramone, the respective proprietors of the local diner and body shop, do pretty good for themselves; their businesses are well-suited for the town’s suddenly booming tourist economy, although they do experience some new competition in the form of chain restaurants and shops that tailor to the expectations of a mass tourism base, and their kids can’t afford the real estate prices and move to find better economic opportunities in Phoenix or Denver. The other working-class inhabitants of the town—the sheriff, the fire truck, Tow Mater—struggle to afford living in town despite the essential services they provide (although I heard that Tow Mater becomes a secret agent in the sequel, so I guess he’ll be fine).

And what of Sally, the Porsche who worked so hard to put Radiator Springs back on the map? I picture her selling her Cozy Cone Motel to a large hotel conglomerate. Her professional background gives her the skills needed to negotiate with the wheelers and dealers of the very world she fled so many years ago, and she makes enough money from the sale to live comfortably in gentrifying Radiator Springs. She also gains a promise from the new owners that they will preserve the historic Route 66 architecture of the motel, although that doesn’t stop them from building a modern expansion in the back of the lot. In the back of Sally’s mind, there’s a nagging sense that something went wrong: so many of the wonderful friends she made here have left. But isn’t this exactly what she worked so hard to achieve? So she settles into a comfortable existence in the town she loves, with the race car she loves, banishing those doubts from her mind.

Therein lies the paradox of this movie. On one hand, it bemoans how the modern, fast-paced world bypassed and forgot Radiator Springs. On the other hand, the solution winds up being found by gaining a representative of modern, mass-produced celebrity culture. Cars presents a nostalgia for a simpler time, when we apparently took the time to slow down and smell the roses, but can’t wrench itself free of the structure of modern consumerist society and its fickle tastes. The movie inadvertently reveals the worldview of its filmmakers, a bunch of well-meaning but ignorant California techies who know little of the world they’re trying to portray beyond nostalgic imagery.

Which leads to the last irony—and to be fair, this one isn’t entirely the fault of the filmmakers. Cars, which ostensibly promotes discovering the forgotten towns of Route 66, inspired a land in Disney’s California Adventure theme park (next door to Disneyland) modeled after Radiator Springs. Admittedly, it seems like a very nice, well-designed theme park attraction, but doesn’t it undercut the message of the film if you can just visit a theme park version of Route 66? But in the end, Route 66 has become just as much a cultural idea about a lost time as it is a real historical place. Perhaps representing it as a Disney-fied theme park attraction, alongside Main Street, U.S.A. and New Orleans Square, is as appropriate a treatment as any.

But it does illustrate the troubles I have with Cars. In the end, it can’t come up with a solution to address the problems it presents that doesn’t fit outside a mass consumerist context. And what that consumerist culture gives, it will just as easily take away.

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