Was the “Cars” Trilogy Just a Six-Hour Toy Commercial?

Cars top
When it comes to children’s entertainment, merchandise is king. How successful your movie is depends largely on how well it can sell toys. Warner Animation neglected this fact in the late ‘90s when they produced Quest for Camelot and The Iron Giant. Neither film was marketed very well, and neither had a very compelling toy line. Unsurprisingly, both bombed at the box office. Nowadays, Warner Animation makes most of their animated films about Lego characters. Lesson learned.

For several years, Pixar was hailed by many for being above this rule. The studio produced one hit film after another because, to the approval of critics and parents everywhere, they cared more about storytelling than product licensing. Pixar films were sharp and sophisticated without feeling like soulless cash grabs.

Now, to say that Pixar didn’t put any thought into merchandising is nonsense. Toy Story may have featured a great premise and memorable characters, but its central conceit also gave the studio a very easy means of satisfying the marketing department. Real-life plastic versions of the main characters were everywhere for a while – I remember a friend of mine proudly showing me his new Buzz Lightyear action figure. (I hope none of the other toys in his room got jealous.)

Still, the Toy Story films are rightly hailed as a “story first” franchise. Which is perhaps more than can be said for the Cars films.

And I can understand why. Even as a kid, I found the central premise of Cars unusual. Anthropomorphic cars? What’s the logic? And what’s the appeal?

Three films later (no plans for a fourth film have been announced, so I’ll currently classify this series as a trilogy), the Cars franchise stands as the unloved stepson of the Pixar industry. It’s been criticized for weak writing, flat characterizations – and is often accused of being chiefly produced to sell toys.

But is this a fair charge? Do the Cars films have any real artistic merit, or do they deserve to be carted off to the auto yard?

Cars (2006)

Cars 1
Pixar was enjoying massive success – both critically and financially – when the first Cars film was released into theaters. Finding Nemo and The Incredibles had both been huge hits, and cemented the studio as one of animation’s (and Hollywood’s) finest. And with John Lasseter directing (his first work in this capacity since Toy Story 2), many expected this winning streak to continue.

But Cars was not the overnight sensation that Pixar had hoped it would be. Reviews were positive, but less glowing than previous Pixar features, and the film’s box-office receipts reflected that. Whereas previous Pixar films had been universally hailed as great cinema, Cars was the first feature film that was merely labeled as “pretty good.”

The distinction is understandable. Cars features a pretty generic story, a lot of stock (get it?) characters, and a notable lack of good comedy. The film tells the story of a hotshot racecar (voiced by Owen Wilson) who learns about the simpler things in life with the help of some residents of a small rural town that time and technology have forgotten. Few surprises occur (although the final race makes for a satisfying payoff), and the film’s middle act features a lot of literal and figurative wheel-spinning.

But then, plenty of other great animated films follow standard story patterns. (Monsters Inc. was not quite as revolutionary as people remember). Yet Pixar’s earlier efforts race across the finish line, whereas Cars merely putt-putts. The larger issue with Cars is more fundamental: The film is about cars.

Sure, Pixar can capture audiences’ hearts with toys, or fish, or monsters, but that’s because all those are things that can be easily anthropomorphized. Kids often imbue life into their playthings, or their pets, or into the creatures which they imagine are hiding in their closet. But how many kids pretend that their little Hot Wheels models have their own lives and personalities?

But cars are easy to sell, and so Cars tries hard to sell them. Radiator Springs is populated with about a dozen different characters who barely get three or four lines, yet each one will fit well alongside your child’s next Happy Meal.

Now, in fairness, I do believe there is a genuine emotional side to Cars, one that can genuinely appeal to adults. The film has a wistful, nostalgic side, embodied by the memorable Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman). Doc’s transition from cranky old grump to baton-passing mentor is eased by a humbling “You can’t go home again” message that equips the film with its greatest emotional highs. It’s a message that will likely resonate with elderly audiences who can remember the era that Radiator Springs and the Hudson Hornet allude to. (Except, y’know, with humans instead of talking cars.)

As a kid in 2006, I really liked Cars. Over time, the film has faded in my mind, and it stands now as one of Pixar’s less-spectacular efforts. But I wouldn’t be shocked if, someday in the far future, I once again find myself embracing it.

Score: B

Cars 2 (2011)

Cars 2
The original Cars may have been emblematic of Pixar coasting on its previous successes, but the second film was the studio’s first complete misfire. While their previous films had all been injected with some level of heart and soul, Cars 2 too often feels like the corporate definition of a cash grab.

And that’s a real pity. Cars 2 sees John Lasseter in the director’s seat one again – his first Pixar film since the original Cars, and his latest as of this writing – and in many ways, it’s the weakest film the studio has ever produced. It’s a film geared to be as marketable as possible, straight down to its tone-deaf premise.

Cars 2 shunts Lightning and most of the film’s original supporting cast to the side, and instead turns the headlights on breakout character Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Mater worked well as the comic relief of the first film, but as this sequel demonstrates, he’s too one-note and simplistic to carry a whole story himself. Cars 2 tries to cover for this issue by tossing Mater in the middle of a deeply convoluted plot about an international spy ring, because spies are really popular with the kids these days. Hilarity ensues, I guess.

I should profess here that I have watched a lot of animated films in my life, and yes, some of them are significantly worse than Cars 2. When placed next to Planes or Epic or Norm of the North or (shudder) Foodfight!, “The Adventures of Double-Oh-Mater” looks like Pinnochio in comparison.

But this is Pixar we’re talking about. The all-pleasing Pixar, which had only one year earlier released the wonderful Toy Story 3. The drop in quality from that film to this one is precipitous, as the studio eschews any attempts at entertaining parents to instead focus on selling lots of toys to kids.

Lacking any significant entertainment for audiences above the age of ten, Cars 2 seemed to indicate that this franchise was indeed fueled solely by its licensing potential. Fortunately, the studio would get a chance to prove otherwise only six years later…

Score: C-

Cars 3

Cars 3
To the question “Do I need to watch Cars 2 to understand Cars 3?” – the answer is no. Not at all. I don’t say this to imply that the Cars franchise is not complex enough to demand attentive viewing (although no, it really isn’t), but to emphasize that Cars 3 does everything in its power to make you forget that Cars 2 ever existed.

The focus once again shifts back to Lightning. Mater’s role is drastically reduced – he barely gets ten minutes of screentime. Instead, Cars 3 emphasizes story and character above mindless gimmickry, trying to parallel and build off the themes of the first film.

That alone scores the film a check in the plus column. It would be so easy for Pixar to churn out another two-hour toy commercial and call it a day. But the fact that this film (from first-time director Brian Fee) has a real draw to its story is a reminder that Pixar still has fondness for its older audiences.

Now that’s not to say that Cars 3 is entirely devoid of commercial opportunities. (Note the number of different paint jobs Lightning gets in the film’s first act, each of which would work perfectly as a toy of its own.) But the virtue of Cars 3 lies in its biting self-awareness: The film references, at multiple points, that Lightning McQueen is a hot commodity in the sports-racing world, and that his potential marketability has now surpassed his racing talents.

Racing factors into the plot of Cars 3, of course, but as with the first film, it’s largely window dressing. The main story centers on Lightning’s struggle to stay relevant, even as younger, hotter cars rush onto the scene. Helping him on his journey – and acting as a welcome Mater stand-in – is Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a racing trainer with a few hang-ups of her own. As with the original Cars, this film follows a predictable story path, but tells it serviceably, and delivers a nice character twist during the big racing climax.

It also does comedy quite well. Cruz gets some good lines (she’s earnest without exemption, and plays off Lightning nicely), and a scene with a demonic school bus at a monster rally ranks as one of the funniest in the whole Pixar oeuvre. While the film is no comedic masterpiece, it delivers the laughs when it needs to, just as easily as the dramatic scenes deliver the feels.

Score: B

Neither Cars nor Cars 3 are masterpieces, and they rank well behind Pixar’s finest offerings. But they’re fine films just the same, proving that good films can still be marketable – and vice versa.

(Cars 2, on the other hand, does not. To heck with that movie.)

All the Cars films are currently available on DVD and for digital download. Cars 3 will also be available on Netflix in early 2018.

5 thoughts on “Was the “Cars” Trilogy Just a Six-Hour Toy Commercial?”

  1. Planes and Epic were far better than any of the films on this list. None of the Cars films do much but rework old ideas into a premise that even makes a lot of kids scratch their heads. Planes on the other hand was an enjoyable yarn, even though it is a generic underdog yarn it still feels fresh to see planes as the anthropomorphic heroes. You feel this idea fits more with the aerial characters than it ever did with the car ones – remember that there were kids’ tv series about planes, trains and boats in the 80s/90s, but I don’t remember a single one that starred talking cars!

    This franchise proves a few things. The first is that sadly something being good means nothing. The Iron Giant was an amazing film but the marketing ball was dropped and fewer kids saw it as a result. The second is that marketing trumps everything. Cars is an awful premise, is unoriginal and highly unmemorable (unlike the aforementioned Planes)…but kids want the toys. It’s that simple.


    1. I just found Planes to be an utterly dull and phoned-in film, with a generic story and lackluster animation. (Straight down to the unspectacular flying scenes; at least Cars gives its racing scenes a dynamic energy.) Sure, there are ways to make cartoons about anthropomorphic planes entertaining (Disney’s been doing it as far back as the “Pedro” short in Saludos Amigos), but there are also ways to make them boring. Planes falls into the latter category.

      Same with Epic, which I found to be a FernGully knockoff minus the entertainment value. Although I’ve admittedly heard a lot of people say they liked Epic.


  2. I’m not sure if I mentioned this on the forums before, but I distinctly remember having more fun with Cars 2 than the consensus, and it took rewatching a bit of it earlier in the year to realise why – it’s the care and attention afforded to detailing the backdrops. Apparently the team took great pains to try and pseudo-recreate the real-life locations presented in the film, and whilst I have always had precious little interest in cars per se, I can often find myself quite spellbound by places. Immersion is often a desirable quality in any form of art, and obviously backdrops play a big part in that, and I must confess I had a whale of a time losing myself in these locales whilst everything else was going on (I’m kinda surprised they didn’t pick the real Monaco instead of the fictional Italian city, but they still filtered some of it into the Porto Corsa, which I find rather creative). It’s the coin-flip to my slow realisation as to why I don’t enjoy Tokyo Godfathers as much as most, which is set against a lot of nondescript greeny-grey buildings which subtly tire the eyes. I’d say Cars 2 absolutely deserves its The Art of… book, and I for one would be happy to spend hours poring over its contents.

    Now, I’d be the first to agree that Tow Mater isn’t much of a character to hinge a film on, and I can barely remember a thing about the actual espionage shenanigans of the plot, but I guess your mileage (heh) will vary depending on what it is you want from cinema. In other words, I have no idea now why a setpiece took place inside Big Ben(tley), but I really enjoyed the experience as it transpired.

    Incidentally, I only saw Cars 3 very recently on a flight, and that for me marks the Pixar nadir because there was simply so little for me to focus on. It’s fair enough that we got McQueen back, but Radiator Springs and some race track are remarkably dull locations to spend a hundred minutes – I’m aware that Radiator Springs is based on various spots on Route 66, but surely that road is best-known for being long and largely featureless? For me this felt like watching wheels spin (again, heh) until we eventually arrive at McQueen’s inevitable decision to pass on the mantle. I loved the demolition derby scene, though.


    1. The trouble with the backdrops and elaborate settings in the Cars films is that I find myself constantly wondering – who built all this? How does a world populated entirely by cars have all these buildings and arenas? How does any of this make any sense? Then I have to lie down for a while.

      But seeing as you’re more weighted toward the visual side of things, I expect you’ll get a kick out of Coco, which is one of Pixar’s most visually ambitious films to date.


      1. Oh yeah, it doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny, but I think the films have to expect you to try and overlook that. And I dare say I will enjoy Coco (especially as I was in Mexico during last year’s Day of the Dead); unfortunately it’s not showing here until mid-January.


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