Cars started printing money upon its release in 2006 and never looked back. On a reported $120 million budget, it made $462 million at the box office. That’s not the magic of 2010’s Toy Story 3 ($1.06 billion) or 2003’s Finding Nemo ($895 million), but it is still certainly nothing to scoff at. Indeed, the whole reason audiences have had to endure Cars 2, widely considered the worst Pixar film, and a Cars 3 in 2017 is because, surprise, a movie about cars encouraged a lot kids to add (toy) cars to their birthday lists. With the more than $10 billion in merchandise sales from Cars alone, you could buy a new Ferrari to drive every day for the rest of your life.
While many of Pixar’s films, like Toy Story, have already become beloved classics, Cars has mostly been forgotten. And not without some reason. It’s not a bad film, but it lacks the imaginative power of Wall-E and Inside Out or the emotional resonance of the Toy Story trilogy and the opening sequence of Up. Film history will mostly remember it as a cog in Disney’s well-oiled cash engine.
This is ironic because Cars is a movie that runs on nostalgia for small-business, small-town America. To recap: Lightning McQueen is the hotshot rookie racecar who finds himself in a three-way tie for the Piston Cup. When his big rig falls asleep during a cross country trip to California, an abandoned Lighting McQueen wrecks much of a dusty village named Radiator Springs. In order to make it back to his big race, Lighting has to pave Radiator Spring’s main road—and learn a dose of humility in the process.
Cars’ reputation suffers, in part, because Lighting McQueen isn’t a very interesting protagonist. He’s sort of arrogant, relentlessly competitive, but mostly unreflective. In short, someone you could see interviewed on ESPN any day of the week. Perhaps the key to enjoying Cars is to understand that it is remix of classic sports movies. Cars has the settings of Hoosiers, The Rookie and Friday Night Lights mixed with the mentor-protegy storyline of Bull Durham and Karate Kid. Most of all, it feeds off our modern desire to see professional athletes not as corporate celebrities but as hometown heroes. This isn’t a new sentiment (The Fighter and The Rookie mine big-time, humble beginnings dualities for ample material), but it has never been portrayed with more clarity than in Cars.
Lighting McQueen isn’t just a jerk at the beginning of the film; he lacks any force that keeps his wheels on the ground. He has no friends from before he was famous and calls himself “a one-man show.” His cross-country rush to California gives the sense that he is always on the move, stuck on the highway, treating everything else like its fly-over country. He has many fans (and a possibly lucrative sponsorship with Dinoco) yet no place to park at night.
Cars is nostalgic not just for small-town life but for athletic identity built on hometown heroes. Residents of Radiator Springs grow to appreciate Lighting McQueen and his service to the town.
Stretching any definition of plausibility, they eventually substitute as his pit crew in his climactic championship race. This is a general arc familiar to any resident of Cleveland who has loved (and loathed) Lebron James over the last decade. Lebron’s poorly managed flight to Miami in 2010 was widely jeered as a selfish betrayal of a city that worshipped the superstar. Four years later, his re-signing with the Cavaliers was met with the acknowledging headlines that “LeBron James’ Cleveland return [is] ‘bigger than basketball.’” Fans don’t just want to see their teams win championships with any players. They want their football, basketball and baseball heroes, among others, to return their adoration with unconditional love for their city.
This is a dream that has always been at odds with the profit-generating big business of professional sports. Contracts last only about as long as players remain useful. For every Derek Jeter, granted a year-long farewell tour and rousing Gatorade-sponsored tour through New York City, there is a Peyton Manning or Brett Favre, who finish their careers wearing markedly different colors. It should be no surprise that Cars opts for the more optimistic ending. Lighting McQueen’s newfound class earns him that Dinoco sponsorship. Yet he turns it down to to stay with the sponsor that gave him his big break, Rust-Eze Bumper Oil. To top it all off, he sets up his racing headquarters in Radiator Springs, putting the vacant town back on the map. This plot point is a smart nod to the real economic power that athletes wield. One economist predicted that Lebron’s return to Cleveland would be worth $500 million to the struggling city. This number turned out to be inflated, but Bloomberg’s revised figure of $215 million is a pretty sweet deal. In the fight between glory and money, Cars tells professional athletes to find a middle ground and turn down (extra) millions to bask in hometown glory.
It may not a revolutionary message but it’s certainly one we want to hear time and again. When legendary New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra died last year, he was remembered in The New York Times for his great play and witticisms—-and for being the pride of Montclair, New Jersey (A New Jersey Township Mourns Yogi Berra, Its Civic Treasure, Sep. 24). The Times reports poignantly:
“Here, people still recall the Hall of Fame catcher as a father who sent his children to public schools and cheered in the stands at hockey games, a guy who doled out candy and photos of himself to trick-or-treaters, who led the Fourth of July parade and spoke at schools with Larry Doby, his pal, neighbor and fellow Hall of Famer. He was a regular at 5:30 p.m. Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in his Yankees windbreaker, and at dinner at La Couronne in Watchung Plaza, where he liked the clams casino so much he was said to order 160 to go at Christmastime.”
Anyone who is moved, even a little bit, by this image of a national celebrity performing the daily rituals of small-town life is bound to come away from Cars with a warm and friendly feeling. It’s a worthy successor to a generation of baseball films (Fields of Dreams, The Sandlot, the aforementioned The Rookie) that traffic in nostalgia for the “better” days. No, we can’t expect most athletic careers to follow the arc of Lightning McQueen or Derek Jeter or Yogi Berra. But in the next ten years, a generation of boys that grew up on Cars will be dominating our sports leagues. Here’s hoping they find their own Radiator Springs.
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