I think it's impossible to fathom how much of an impressive library of animated films Pixar has made over the years. Since they debut onto the scene in 1995 with "Toy Story", they've been called one of the best animation studios of all time and have released some of the greatest animated films ever made as well. With that said though, like every studio, they're not perfect and some of their films haven't always made the best impressions among audiences. One of those films often cited as being their weakest is "Cars". When it was released in 2006, it was seen as the black sheep film of the studio until the release of its sequel with some people finding it a step backward from their previous works like "Monsters Inc.", "Finding Nemo", and "The Incredibles". I remember loving the film as a kid and watched it until the DVD I had finally couldn't play the film anymore and we had to ironically throw it away at a gas station during a road trip. It's been years since I've seen the film so I was interested in giving this film a rewatch. While I will say that it's not a great animated film and not the best in Pixar's amazing catalog, I don't think it's nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. In fact, I'd say it's actually quite decent and enjoyable.
In a world populated with anthropomorphic cars, the final grand racing tournament known as the Piston Cup is underway and hot-shot rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is determined to win it. However, the race ends between a three-way tie between McQueen, retiring race legend "The King" (Richard Petty), and runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). A tie-breaker race is set up in Los Angeles and both Chick and McQueen are determined to get to California first to try to impress "The King's" sponsorship, Dinoco. On his way to California though, an incident with his big rig Mack (John Ratzenberger) and some show-off cars gets McQueen to accidentally fall out of the trailer and lost on the Interstate. McQueen tries to find Mac but ends up getting more lost and eventually damages a road in a small town on Route 66 called Radiator Springs. With the town angry and wanting the road fixed, McQueen is sentenced to community service by Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) with some encouragement from lawyer Sally (Bonnie Hunt) to fix the road well much to McQueen's disgust. While trying to fix the road, McQueen then learns to appreciate the small town and its inhabitants including Hudson, Sally, Flo (Jenifer Lewis), Ramone (Cheech Marin), Filmore (George Carlin), Sarge (Paul Dooley), Luigi and Guido (Tony Shalhoub and Guido Quaroni), Lizzie (Katherine Helmond), Sheriff (Michael Wallis), Red (Joe Ranft), and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).
Looking back on this film, I do understand why its legacy hasn't been very kind and why it has been seen as a black sheep in Pixar's catalog. For one, the follow-up films have been very bad with the second film and the "Planes" films leaving less than positive impressions. Though the bigger reason is how the film seemed like a step backward from Pixar's previous films. Coming off the heels of "The Incredibles", it's understandable to see why as that film stepped up the bar with complex computer-animated elements and a fantastic tightly written and somewhat adult script while this just seemed standard and simple. It also didn't help that people overly questioned how the world worked considering it was populated by anthropomorphic cars. Personally, I actually think the film isn't nearly as bad as what it's been made out to be and I do think it has some really good moments. I can say though that the story isn't exactly the strongest. While the plot has been done several times including the Michael J. Fox comedy "Doc Hollywood", it still works well enough. While I think the first half is easily the slower half as parts do drag and feel annoying, I will say the second half really has some genuinely great moments. I liked the part where McQueen and Sally go for a drive which shows off the film's gorgeous landscapes, the scenes with Doc Hudson, and I also highly applaud the film's message about winning. I think this is one of the films that really handles the message about winning perfectly and I got to love it for that. As far as the animation goes, I think it still looks great. This is easily one of the best looking animated films from 2006 and it benefits from some gorgeous scenery. The world of this film and the environments are simply breathtaking and showed how long Pixar's animation came since making "Toy Story" in 1995. I also admire how simply the character designs of the cars were. The look of the cars was inspired by legendary Disney storyboard artist Bill Peet and his short "Susie, The Blue Little Coupe" and how he put the eyes on the windshield instead of the headlights which was a common practice for designing anthropomorphic cars for the time. That was a great decision in retrospect. As far as the characters go, I do like most of them. McQueen does start off annoying and unlikeable at first, but he gets much better in the second half of the film when he grows as a character, and I really like Owen Wilson's performance. Doc Hudson was my favorite character in the film and Paul Newman gave him so much depth and history. It was also Newman's last role before his death two years later and I think it was a good note to go out on. The others were fun too with Sally having some sass, Flo and Ramone flirting all the time, Luigi and Guido obsessing over Ferraris, and Lizzie being somewhat crazy. I also didn't mind Mater too much as Pixar knew how to use him sparingly. I think he's a character that works better in small doses which is something the sequel failed to understand. I think one thing I do wish the film focused a little on more though is the element of racing. The film does dabble in it a few times, but I think it should have focused on it a tad bit more.
In all, "Cars" is not nearly as bad as its legacy suggests. The story is uneven but picks up heavily in the second act, the animation is amazing and benefits from beautiful landscapes and character designs, and the characters mostly work and all have their quirks and charms to them. While this film isn't Pixar's best, I can say it's actually not that bad. I think if you separate the film from Pixar's catalog and view it as its own film, it works very well. Give it a watch next time if you're curious. It's not a bad film to cruise to.