Making Sense of <em>Cars</em> Making Sense of <em>Cars</em>
Feature Film

Making Sense of Cars

Try as he might, illustrator Jake Parker couldn’t make sense of the world that Pixar created for Cars. He writes:

And that leads me to the one thing that didn’t sit well with me: the strange machine/flesh hybrids Pixar came up with to populate this world. It’s as if a mad scientist enamored with automobiles terraformed Mars and furnished it with cyborg vehicles with engines of steel and minds of flesh. You have these cars, but with actual fleshy eyes, with irises, and mouths of teeth and tongues. Where does the machine end and the flesh begin? So, to make everything piece together a little better in my head I drew up what I think the internal structures of Lightning McQueen might look like.

This amusing illo is what he came up with (link to larger image).

  • That’s cool. I remember having the same problem when the movie came out. It’s hard to get with some animated features ( Cars, Bee Movie ) where you’re just expected to accept the world of the characters. With Cars for example, I always wondered how the cars made things without any hands :s

  • tom

    Or how they read their newspapers. Or why they needed houses. Or any number of things that spring to ming while watching, such as what does love mean between two cars? How is it that there are car-children? What the hell is going on with the little car bugs at the end of the film? Are there other car creatures out there? Car dogs, cats…

    There are tractor cows, so anything’s possible I suppose. The whole enterprise felt a little too abstract to me. Shows what I know.

  • Chuck R

    “It’s hard to get with some animated features ( Cars, Bee Movie ) where you’re just expected to accept the world of the characters.”

    Perfect example of a comment that makes me think: what is he doing on an animation website? Dudes, when you pony up 9 bucks to see a movie like Cars, what kind of realism are you looking for?

    The original illustration is funny though. Kind of a watered-down Michael Paulus:

  • Azz

    The only way to make sense of Cars is to imagine the entire Pixar crew nodding along to John Lassester saying “Yes Jonn, that’s a great idea” without daring to criticise him.

    Because if that film had had any critical thinking applied to it it wouldn’t have been made. I love Pixar to death – but Cars is such a blight on their record.

  • I’m glad you posted this, because it’s something that I got stuck on when I was watching “Cars” but couldn’t figure out what specifically until I saw this in the Times review:

    “…a world that, save for a thicket of tall pines and an occasional scrubby bush, is freakishly absent any organic matter. Here, even the bugs singeing their wings on the porch light look like itty-bitty Volkswagen beetles.”

  • Karl Wilcox

    Yeah. It’s the same concept as H-B’s SPEED BUGGY and WHEELIE &
    THE CHOPPER BUNCH. It requires a suspension of belief in what is
    considered the norm. Humanized animals is one thing, but humanized
    objects always kind of bugged me.

  • Andrew

    Well, Jake had better understand it soon- Pixar is producing a SEQUEL!

  • My theory is that animation is often symbolic by its very nature. It’s the same with puppets. A puppet, as Jim Henson noted, is a symbol of whatever you’re trying to portray: wisdom, evil, etc.

    Animated characters, whether they be drawings, puppets, or computer models, are symbols for who we are, and are essentially saying something about us through the vessel of a symbolic, pure “actor”. In the case of Cars, the universe that’s presented is kind of an existential stage for the story to take place. It includes actual locations like California, Route 66 for us to recognize and connect with….the characters themselves are simply symbols for who we are, to reflect the central theme of the story. The world that’s presented is not meant to be taken literally….it’s merely an environment for the story to be told in more of a symbolic, figurative language. It’s a very human story…cars just happen to be telling it to us.

    It’s an interesting cycle with that film: it’s made by real people who use machines (computers) to tell a story about machines (cars) that is really a story about, and for, real people.

    I love that question though…’Where does the machine end and the flesh begin?’ You could easily ask the same about body and soul, and get into all kinds of deep questions.

  • Oliver

    Yep, what tom says — why do they need human-style houses and how do they reproduce?! Maybe Pixar could get Shinya Tsukamoto to direct the sequel…

  • Jason

    “Cars” was just too high-concept for me. I never bought into its fantasy world for a moment. And I’m a car guy. My family works for automakers. So I identify with cars maybe more than the average person. But “Cars” was just silly. And I got awful tired of looking at all that metal. AND I’M A CAR GUY. “Cars” is my least favorite Pixar film.

  • Baron Lego

    That’s awesome! Granted, applying this to the film would have been a tad disturbing, considering that any wipe outs or accidents on the racetrack would result in blood and guts being strewn everywhere.

  • …That’s the problem of watching a kids movie while under the effects of Marijuana :-P

  • Mr. Semaj

    Cars would have been a more believable film if it stuck closer to the cartoon it was supposedly inspired from, “Susie the Little Blue Coupe” (Disney, 1952).

    Instead of cars trying to exist in a cruel human world, a premise proven successful with Toy Story, somebody dropped something in the primordial ooze so that every organism resembles the automobile, and it’s essentially cars living in their own world absent of humans, which on all accounts doesn’t add up.

    All of this is what makes the sequel proposal questionable.

  • Sarah

    Really cool. It reminds me a lot of Jason Freeny works Anatomie of Gummi Bear and balloon animals.

  • Kyle

    Ive been into this argument many times since the movie released…

    its just too hard to suspend disbelieve enough for cars. I kept asking basic questions about this universe. the main thing they did wrong in cars was ignore the existence of humans. without humans cars have no reason to exist. I never had this problem in past pixar movies

    Toys that secretly move when people aren’t around, believable. (in fact I Did believe it at that age)

    talking bugs with a whole underground world, once again totally believable. they kinda already do anyway, a bugs life was just an extension of that.

    and so on and so fourth with all of Pixar movies. their just believable without question.

    but the cars concept just doesn’t work enough for a full length feather. it would have been fine for a short, but not a whole movie where it requires you to be able to assume or instantly “get” how this universe works. it may be a cartoon, but it still requires a certain amount of believability to work.

  • Quite amusing!

    But what about having an imagination?

  • The Animator

    Funny but some people think to deeply on it. I’d rather not ponder how it works, cause in animation some things you just have to accept. Like a Bob Clampett cartoon, makes no sense any way you look at em but there a thrill to watch.

  • Michael Grabowski

    I just noticed that ants have 6 legs, too, ruining my enjoyment of another movie. Nobody better try to tell me that there’s no such thing as monsters, or I’ll really be upset.

  • Tsimone Tse Tse

    Yea, but Lightning & co are probably the greatest selling characters for boys 10 & under here at WDW.

  • Andrew

    But what happens when he opens his doors, man! WHAT HAPPENS WHEN HE OPENS HIS DOORS!

    The horror … the horror…

  • Kevin

    Didn’t Steve Purcell do something like this too?

  • Disturbing…but awesome! Thanks for the pic!

    At the department store I work at (i will not mention the specific name) Cars stuff is incredibly popular in the toy department. Maybe that’s why they’re working on a sequel.

    Remember, as Mel Brooks said, merchandising – Moichandisin’! – makes the world go ’round.

  • Christ, what’s next– “Visible Gumby” model kits?

    How is it possible to think too much and not enough at the same time? They’re cartoons.

  • amid

    To all those saying, “It’s just a cartoon,” it’s important to recognize that there’s a huge difference between realism and believability. Nobody expects a cartoon to be real, but it has to be believable. A 5-foot talking rabbit is perfectly acceptable if you set up the universe properly.

    The problem with Cars is that they created a universe that wasn’t believable. Cars live in a world that is recognizably human and built by humans, yet there are no humans around??? Every time they tried to explain how cars did things, it only raised more questions about how they did other things. Nobody’s complaining that it wasn’t real, just that it wasn’t established on a creative framework that allowed an audience to suspend its disbelief.

  • Jessica B.

    Don’t know about anyone else, but after I watched Cars, I realized it had to be the unofficial sequel to Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, and this was what happened to the world after the cars had taken over.

  • I agree that the Cars world made no sense, but I liked the movie anyway. I don’t let stuff like that bother me (this *is* one of those times you can say “it’s just a cartoon”).

    I figured the cars would be much more robotic though (like a metal brain that looks like an engine). There was nothing really “fleshy” about them; the eyes still looked like a windsheild and the tongues looked sort of plasticy. He should’ve started with the blueprints of a real car then gone back and added a metal brain and stuff in the passenger area. Maybe I should try drawing that…

    It’s a really good drawing though! :)

  • Gerard de Souza

    Wished I thought of that! Funny Illo!

  • How about a film with nothing but deep-thinking, literalistic animation experts who occupy a world full of pointless criticism?

    That’d be a hoot.

    If the guys at Pixar aren’t allowed push the boundaries of imagination and storytelling, then who is? Dreamworks? Yeah, keep dreaming.

  • Jo

    I always figured “Cars” was Pixar’s way of saying to Disney “Whaddya mean Toy Story 2 didn’t count towards our contract? You want one more film outta us? Well, suck on THIS!”

    And then the merger happened and everyone had to pretend that Cars was a good movie. (I’m actually surprised to find so many other people didn’t like it- I thought I was the only one.)

  • Neal Sternecky

    Wow. You call that pushing the boundaries of imagination? Please! It was a really poorly thought-out universe.

    Amid is absolutely right in his comment a few up.

  • uncle wayne

    i couldn’t get pass the first 10 minutes….and for an ANIMATED film….for me!??….that’s Mr. Ripley! “NASCAR”….pa-leez….how uninteresting a premise is THAT!?? GIve me Johnny Fedor or Suzie the Little Blue Coupe ANYtime!! I’m sure it did have heart…..but cars “going-around-in-a-circle”—- & for more than 2 minutes???…..


  • Oliver

    Actually, cynic that I am, the most unbelievable aspect of cars for me was being asked to believe that a personable loser would get more acclaim and attention from the media than an obnoxious winner.

    Just as well ‘Cars’ isn’t real life, because in real-life America nobody cares who came 2nd.

  • Sam

    To the critics of this thread: Although many are content to watch animation, there’s a whole other group that’s interested in creating animation. As filmmakers and storytellers, we’re not questioning what happens in cartoons, we’re questioning the decisions that happen in the process of *making* the cartoons.

    I agree it can be a stodgey drag to look behind the curtain, but that’s how we learn and hopefully avoid repeating similar errors.

    Even if you’re thrilled with the movie ‘Cars’, don’t you think there are ways it might have been improved? How? This consideration leads to understanding and growth and ultimately, better cartoons for you to watch and argue about in the future.

  • Russell H

    A friend of mine who’s a film reviewer once noted that a sign for him that a movie has not succeeded is when he finds himself wondering about everything in the film except what’s actually happening on screen. The example he gave was a horror movie he saw in which there was a scene in a cave lit by hundreds of candles. Instead of focusing on the characters and what they were doing and saying, he found himself thinking about who had stuck up all those candles and lit them.

    The fact that people have been pondering so much about the curious nature of the CARS-world I think bears out this observation. Because of the simplistic characterizations (most characters in it are easily recognizable stereotypes that behave in unsurprising ways) and use of a well-worn plot idea that also does nothing surprising, it’s easy for one’s mind to wander off down these paths.

    For me, I’d add that one aspect of CARS that was perhaps “too good” was the backgrounds, particularly, the town of Radiator Springs. The animators did such an amazing job of re-creating the wonderful quirky architecture of old Route 66 towns that I kept thinking about how much I’d like to explore the place, and half-wishing all the annoying characters would get off the screen so I could see it all better.

    One can get away with a premise like that of CARS in a six-minute cartoon like Warner Bros. STREAMLINED GRETA GREEN (“I wanna be a taxi!”) where the rapid-fire gags and short running time don’t allow the audience to lose interest and wonder about the details. CARS ended up being a really one-joke premise stretched out ‘way too long.

  • Chuck R.

    Russell H. nailed it on the head. There’s nothing wrong with the premise of anthropomorphic vehicles. My personal testimony is Tex Avery’s “Little Johnny Jet”. The problem was the movie had a tired plot (Doc Hollywood meets Tom-Cruise-movie-of-your-choice) a less than compelling lead character and no great villain. It had a nice little message about taking it easy, but nothing much at stake. It was not a horrible film, but definitely Pixar-lite.

    I agree with the setting. Pretty fun, even though postwar stylings are getting kinda stale as well.

  • tom

    I just wanted to add that Russell H has captured exactly what I would have wanted to say about Cars if I had a bigger brain. Kudos, Russell.

  • CLow

    Where’s the driver’s seat?

  • Opus

    I think the nitpicking is going wayyyyy overboard here and most of the justification for it seems to be that people thought the movie sucked. But if we’re going to play this game….

    If there were no humans why did they have fields of food?

    TOY STORY 1+2
    If the toys are capable of forming close relationships why stick around and be at the mercy of some kid? Why not just run off into the middle of nowhere and start their own society.
    Unless they’re all antonomically correct why are the male and female toys attracted to each other? Shouldn’t they all be genderless?
    Why do all the toys seem to take on the personality of their form, Buzz heroic spaceman, Woody heroic cowboy..etc…so why aren’t there any evil toys? If there are evil ones shouldn’t at least some of them be killing the kids that own them?


    If Walle can repair his own bad parts why not repair other broken units like himself to help clean the place up?
    Like the toys how could any of the robots be attracted to each other? Besides their names there’s nothing male or female about them?
    Why would Wall-e’s makers give him enough of a personality to be able to fall in love?
    If the human ship was able to send the eve bot to earth and pick her up again why did they need the stupid plant at the end of the film to help steer the ship there?

    How many other films can we nit pick?

  • Regarding those Michael Paulus illustrations – MAD Magazine did the exact same thing in the 70s!

  • Slow Down

    I always thought the cars were metaphors for people’s personalities. That the cars were people just represented as cars. The point of the movie was that people in America are going too fast to enjoy life. I feel if you didn’t enjoy the movie, it’s because you are going too fast in life.

  • I think Pixar is starting to sit on their laurels–just as after Lion King Disney feature animated began coasting and basically destroyed the market they built up. I have littke desire to see Wall E, which I suspect like Cars is very sentimental and full of cheap plot devices.
    What I objected to was the whole bogus Radiator Springs bypassed by the freeway subplot–as if being turned into a tourist trap is a happy ending (ask the honest residents of Moab Utah what it is like going from sleepy village to the hot new vacation place). I bet the sequel ducks issues like that. Yeah, Pixar should be pushing the boundaries but once you find something that works it is hard not to repeat yourself. After Pinocchio the next 20+ Disney features had colorful sidekicks a la Jiminy Cricket, but none worked as well as the original. There is a history lesson someone at Pixar should take to heart.

  • That’s…pretty cool, but also rather unusual. Then again, it IS an animated film – 2D or 3D otherwise – so basically anything can happen. Hence why not many of us question how other shows with talking machines can co-exist as humans – Thomas the Tank Engine, TUGS, Jimbo and the Jet Set, Hot Rod Dogs, etc.