Cars turns 15 this year. Cars 2 turns 10. These films, the first two in a trilogy of anthropomorphised, fast-paced, vehicular adventures, have become distinct images in the world of animation. The slick red paint of its protagonist Lightning McQueen – voiced beautifully by Owen Wilson – and his loveable albeit not too bright friend Mater took the world by storm at the time of the first movie’s release and to this day remain two of the most recognisable Pixar characters.
The first Cars film has our lead stuck in a three-way tie during a race with the rescheduled race set for one week in the future in California. Through a series of events, McQueen ends up in the town of Radiator Springs, where he meets a host of colourful characters and learns more about himself along the way.
Cars 2, meanwhile, feels very different. It’s a pseudo spy film that has the main characters from the first film travelling around the world for a grand prix. The difference between the two movies is like night and day. Don’t get me wrong, the animation for both is stunning. It is the themes and execution of them that’s the difference. The first feels thematically impactful whereas the sequel feels rushed and cluttered in execution. Cars 2 doesn’t give us anything that the first Cars doesn’t.
Cars shows us a rundown Route 66 town that once thrived, now forced almost to breaking point by the introduction of a bypass. We explore how each character has their business affected and we see Lightning McQueen begin to look at the world in a different way. He learns what is truly valuable and not to give those things up in favour of something convenient. The movie tells us to slow down and enjoy everything around us, a strong yet fun message for a movie about a high-speed car race.
Outside of the themes, there is the incredible animation too. Some of the older cars move in a more clunky way to the younger ones, adding depth to the motion of the characters. Pixar even created software that would allow for the cars to follow the path and contours of the ground beneath them to make the animator’s lives easier and allow for more realistic movement. This groundbreaking technology only served to enhance the overall experience.
Cars 2 was widely panned by critics upon release and is generally regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, Pixar film. Racing takes a backseat to the espionage. Meanwhile, the theme, blurred as it is, about being yourself plods along next to a weak plot, so weak in fact that Cars 3 appears to ignore its existence completely. It should be said Cars 3 does redeem the franchise a bit. While it never reaches the success and beauty of the original, it serves as a worthwhile sequel to the first in the series.
To look back at Cars and see how it has stood strongly as an animated film 15 years later is interesting. It has and will never be the biggest Pixar film but that doesn’t matter. It has a sense of heart and a feeling of never giving up and hitting the road with all you’ve got. Featuring a boisterous soundtrack, including a cover by Rascal Flatts of Tom Cochrane’s song ‘Life is a Highway’, we are given a fleshed-out, rounded family movie that has stood the test of time. Indeed, ‘Life is a Highway’ is something Cars shows viewers in droves. The original Cars urges those who see it to explore life and take in everything. It makes sure that we want to ride that highway, all night long.