When I first heard about the Disney-Pixar venture, Cars, my immediate thought was, “Aw shoot…Pixar’s finally created a movie I won’t like.” Certainly, I despise NASCAR, particular for the fact they waste ridiculous amounts of gas in a time when some people can’t even afford the cost of filling their tanks, but I should have known better about second-guessing Pixar. The true genius of each of the movies put out by this consistently fresh and insightful production company is that their narratives work on multiple levels. For example, the first Toy Story is at the same time a tale for kids about a cowboy doll named Woody that has to deal with the arrogant new Buzz Lightyear action figure and a tale for adults about how to deal with the snarky new guy at work; Finding Nemo is at once a cute kiddie tale about fishies and an underwater Odyssey–rife with father and son figures, marvellous encounters, etc.; and Wall-E is both a saccarine, G-Rated love story and a heady warning about the dangers of human excess. To be sure, Cars is no exception to this Pixar rule.
As my son and I were watching Cars yesterday for the billionth time, it donned on me that the movie can indeed be interpreted in a very abstract fashion that goes beyond even the usual “dual-layer” quality of Pixar’s films: like Art Spiegelman’s two-volume graphic novel (or more precisely, graphic biography), Maus, in which the characters are drawn as various anthropomorphic animals depending on their ethnicity (i.e., Jews are represented as mice, Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs, Polish as pigs, etc.), the characters in Cars can be interpreted as anthropomorphic versions of the real-life people who do their jobs. Lightning McQueen is obvious–he’s a hot-shot race car driver obsessed with coming in first place and signing the big advertising contract. But there’s also the grizzly, embittered town doctor and judge who was once a hot-shot race car driver himself until a horrible crash left him out of the running; there’s the perky lawyer from the city who fell in love with small town America and who now tries hopelessly to restore its original lustre and appeal; there’s the hot-tempered old police officer, a character whose human face we have seen time and again in shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and movies like My Cousin Vinny; and of course, there’s the lovable if helplessly dimwitted tow truck driver who gets his kicks from cow tipping and spinning yarns. All of these characters appear as anthropomorphic automobiles in the movie, but these representations, like Maus, could just be symbolic depictions of who these people really are. Their appearances, in short, are merely facades.
Whether you choose to see the characters in Cars as anthropomorphic representations or just talking, cute-looking automobiles, you can’t ignore Pixar’s usual dual-layer message: in one hand you have a tale describing the importance of helping and appreciating others, and in the other you have a tale describing the sadness and devastation caused by the fast-paced American lifestyle and the disappearance of small town America. As usual with a Pixar film, there’s so much going on in terms of theme and characterization that Cars literally deserves multiple viewings before you can fully appreciate the bredth of what it offers.
How naive I was to assume that I would not like this movie about race cars! It’s just further proof, I suppose, off the addage that has been preached to me countless times throughout my life, in the “kid messages” of Disney movies and elsewhere: nothing should be taken on face value. Since I’m apparently still learning this lesson, perhaps if I were to be depicted as an anthropomorphic automobile, I would be a race car. Oh, the irony!