In a world populated solely by vehicles, racing rookie Lightning McQueen has taken the Piston Cup by storm. Amid the thunder of roaring exhausts, the cocky No. 95 looks set to steal the championship from veteran racers "The King" Strip Weathers and his perpetual rival, Chick Hicks.
"I am speed," Lightning assures himself as the race begins. "I eat losers for breakfast." Lightning may in fact be the fastest, brashest car on the track. But his self-absorption proves to be his Achilles, umm, hubcap. After refusing to listen to his crew chief's instructions, Lightning finishes the final race in a dead heat with his rivals—necessitating an unprecedented three-way race off. To the winner goes the Piston Cup Championship and the coveted Dinoco sponsorship that The King has owned for decades. California, here they come for one final race!
Mack, Lightning's usually trusty transport rig, falls asleep as they drive across the country. And Lightning finds himself accidentally ejected from his trailer ... and abandoned in the middle of nowhere. In his frantic search for Mack, Lightning tears into Radiator Springs—literally. Residents of "the cutest little town in Carburetor County" are thrilled to have a visitor, but less than thrilled by the damage he's done to the road on his way into town.
The town's doctor and judge, Doc Hudson, sentences Lightning to community service—repaving the road—before he can leave. The impetuous coupe is eager to get to California for the race, but the friendships he makes with the town's residents slowly work their way under his paint. A petite Porsche named Sally, who owns the Cozy Cone Motel, first attracts his eye. And a growing friendship with the town's tow truck, Mater, warms his engine as well. Other locals, such as Italian tire salesmen Luigi and Guido; gas station owner Flo and her car-painter husband, Ramone; and '60s microbus castoff Filmore and his Jeep friend Sarge—not to mention Doc Hudson himself—all have important lessons to teach Lightning.
And those are lessons he'll need to put into practice if he wants to win the race of the century.
"Forty years ago, it wasn't about making great time, it was about having a great time," says Sally, lamenting the fact that an interstate highway now bypasses Radiator Springs. "The road moved with the land; it didn't cut through it." She drives Lightning up to a ridge where they can see how close—and yet how far—the interstate really is from Radiator Springs. Lightning exclaims, "They're just driving by! They don't know what they're missing!" That message—that we miss the best life has to offer when we're moving too quickly—is one of the film's strongest.
Another strongly positive theme is illuminated by Lightning's growth process. It would be difficult for him to be any more in love with himself—and oblivious to others—than he is at the beginning of Cars. For example, even though his sponsor is Rust-eze Medicated Bumper Ointment, it doesn't stop him from announcing, "I hate rusty cars; it's not good for my image." Indeed, Lightning's image, along with winning, are all that matter to him initially.
But his unplanned detour into a backwater town where no one has even heard of him offers an education in what really matters: friendship. Sally helps Lightning see that Radiator Springs still has a lot to offer. She longs to restore its lost glory, saying, "We are a town worth fixing." And after Mater tells Lightning, "You're my best friend," Sally emphasizes that such a trust is not to be taken lightly.
Many other cars contribute to Lightning's character development as well. Doc asks Lightning, "When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hotrod? ... These are good folk around here; I don't want them depending on someone they can't count on." Despite his gruff demeanor, Doc has a soft spot for Lightning, and he teaches the young racer lessons about discipline, dependence and humility. Similarly, The King tells Lightning, "There's more to racing than just winning."
Each of the cars in Radiator Springs offers Lightning something he needs, such as new paint, new tires and different skills he'll employ in the final race. As a result of these characters' influence, Lightning learns to depend on his friends and to sacrifice his own desires for the sake of others. When he's offered a flashy Dinoco sponsorship, he demonstrates maturity by choosing to stay with his old sponsor, Rust-eze.
As a G-rated movie, Cars definitely doesn't include glaring sexual content. But alert adults will notice some double entendres and suggestive allusions. Mater says jokingly of Sally, "She just likes me for my body." A reporter asks if McQueen will be posing for Cargirl. A bumper sticker on one of the cars reads, "Nice Butte." When Lightning's romance with Sally warms up, Mater sings (twice), "McQueen and Sally parking next to a tree, K-I-S-S-" and then forgets the rest of the song. Sally offers Lightning one of her rooms at the Cozy Cone, but makes it clear she's not inviting him to spend the night with her.
The opening race features a huge, multicar crash (the kind you've likely seen if you've ever watched a NASCAR race). Some of the cars are severely damaged, but the "camera" doesn't linger on them. Potentially the most disturbing scene for younger viewers comes in the final race when one of the three contestants suffers a violent, career-ending crash that leaves him badly beaten up.
Examples of the film's more cartoony violence include Lightning racing off a rock ledge and coming painfully to rest in a cactus patch. In subsequent practice, Lightning keeps careening off the same cliff. In a dream, he imagines himself as a jet fighter firing rockets at advancing War of the Worlds-like alien machines, which explode when hit by his weaponry.
Fast and the Furious-style street racers startle a drowsy Mack; his ensuing loss of control and trip off the tarmac result in Lightning being shoved out of the back of the truck; oncoming traffic quickly spins the race car off the road. When Lightning wakes up and realizes what's happened, he tries in vain to chase down Mack, weaving in and out of traffic as he does so.
Lightning makes a "grand" entrance into Radiator Springs trying to outrun the Sheriff. An accident leaves him entangled in barbed-wire fencing and towing a statue of the town's founder.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters exclaim "oh, lord!" and "holy shoot." Lightning blurts out "holy Porsche" as he watches Sally drive. A play on Jesus' name happens in a short scene after the final credits when a car says, "For the love of Chrysler!" Mater's fond of saying "dadgum" and "golldurn." When Lightning mentions a character who's won the Piston Cup, the tow truck asks, "He did what in his cup?" Lightning laments, "I'm in hillbilly h---," a phrase Sally later repeats. Lightning's selfish behavior several times prompts others to say things such as "you idiot," "you fool" and "you moron."
Drug and Alcohol Content
It's implied that Filmore, a 1960 VW bus, has done drugs. Watching the town's stoplight change, Filmore tells Sarge, "I'm tellin' ya' man, every third blink is slower." Sarge replies, "The '60s weren't good for you, were they?" Filmore also sells special "organic" fuel. And when Lightning blows into town, the microbus asks, "I'm not the only one seeing this, right?" voicing a fear that perhaps he's hallucinating.
After Lightning brags that he doesn't need headlights because the track is "always lit," another character says, "So is my brother." A number of empty cans can be seen next to tailgating cars at one of the races.
Other Negative Elements
Convincing Lightning to join in the "fun" by calling him a "baby" and a "chicken," Mater goes "tractor tipping," which is similar to cow tipping. ("Tractors is so dumb," Mater drawls.) Lightning's attempt to play the game tips over all the tractors. It's played off as a harmless joke, and no one gets seriously injured. Nevertheless, the pair's actions still constitute vandalism. Oddly, the tractors make a sound like passing gas after they tip over—as does Sheriff's backfiring engine. And speaking of gas, Flo jokes, "I have gas ... lots of gas." A character asks, "Did I forget to wipe my mudflaps?"
After being arrested by Sherriff, Lightning tries to make a break for it. Lightning also plays a reckless, high-speed game racing a train to a crossing. Noticing a decorative decal on her trunk, Lightning says to Sally, "Hey, do I spot a little pinstripe tattoo back there?" When Lightning visits Doc at his garage, Sheriff is up on a raised jack having some work done and comments, "Hope you enjoyed the show." There are two wink-wink references made to lug nuts.
In the tradition of Pixar releases The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Monster's, Inc., Cars is a terrific story. It's a blast to watch (especially if you happen to be a car fanatic, as the realism of many visual details is astounding), and it's loaded with positive messages about selflessness, slowing down, enjoying life and learning how to be a good friend. In a world where image-conscious superstar athletes often hog the spotlight, Cars reminds us why being a team player is ultimately more satisfying—and significant—than being the center of attention.
Unlike my experience watching the G-rated Nemo and Monsters, however, I was surprised to note as many subtle content issues as I did in this film. Granted, most of the allusions are so slyly understated that youngsters probably won't catch them. But that doesn't completely excuse their inclusion. And kids won't be oblivious to the two uses of the word "h---" and interjections such as "oh, lord" and "holy shoot."
For a film that tells such an engaging story and delivers such solid, redemptive themes, then, it's mildly disappointing to have to issue any disclaimers at all. It's as if animation rivals DreamWorks and Pixar are both suddenly trying out new middle ground. DreamWorks dialed down the content concerns in their latest release, Over the Hedge; Disney and Pixar have (ever so slightly) revved them up.