Do the cars in Pixar’s Cars get old? Questions like this have dogged the film since it came out back in 2006. That’s partly a consequence of how unassumingly weird the franchise’s all-cars, no-humans universe is—and partly of how much more interesting arguing over the minutiae of how the cars in Cars procreate, excrete, expire, etc., tends to be than, well, watching Cars.
To be fair, the movie brings a lot of this wild internet speculation on itself. Take the “Our Town” sequence from the original film, which depicts the long, allegedly sad backstory of Americana utopia Radiator Springs, stretching from its early days as a Route 66 rest stop to its abrupt ghost-town-ification by the arrival of Interstate 40 up to its faded existence in the present day. It’s a span of time covering something like 60 years, during which the only major change that comes over the town’s inhabitants is the coat of rust growing on Larry The Cable Guy’s good-natured yokel tow truck Mater. Cars 2 established that cars can be murdered, sure, and the franchise eventually suggested that Paul Newman’s Doc died of natural causes—whatever the hell those might be for a sentient automobile. But the denizens of Radiator Springs give the sense of being ageless throwbacks, tributes to a hollowed and immortal past.
Which lines up pretty perfectly with “Our Town,” actually—perhaps the most expensive sequence of animation ever produced primarily to express hatred of the United States interstate highway system. This anti-progress screed (coming, as it did, from what was maybe the most technologically advanced movie studio in the world at the time) has as much to do with Cars’ status as an odd sort of passion project as anything else. Even as Pixar became much more of an expansive effort in its second decade of operation—allowing new directors to dive deeper into appealing subject matters, with ever-more emotional nuance—Cars remained studio founder John Lasseter’s baby. And boy howdy, does John Lasseter love small towns and cars.
Nowhere is that appreciation expressed most clearly than in “Our Town,” featuring as it does James Taylor maudlin-ing his way over shots of a prime hub of American greatness, in the process of being abandoned just to cut down “10 minutes of driving.” Lasseter talked a great deal during the film’s production about his love of American automobiles and road trip culture, waxing poetic about long drives taken with his family, and citing a 1997 documentary, Divided Highways, about the damage the interstates did to towns like Radiator Springs. Cars (or, as it was originally called, Route 66) is always a little fuzzy about what it’s trying to convey about protagonist Lightning McQueen. Is he supposed to be learning to take it slow? Embrace good sportsmanship? Be nicer to the John Ratzenberger-voiced semi truck who lets him ride around in his belly? But the movie is laser-focused when it comes to the topic of how much better it used to be out on the open road, when, to quote Bonnie Hunt’s Sally, “Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time; they drove on it to have a great time.” It’s a simple, backwards-looking sentiment, from a studio that had made a name for itself by this point by marrying emotional complexity with technological forward force.
The irony is seeing this veneration of a noble, less-commercialized past being expressed in Cars; other Pixar films might have been about the inner lives of objects, but this was the first one to feel like a product itself. Even its emotional messaging—undeniably affecting, in a saccharine, “You must feel this!” sort of way—seems like it was designed to arrive in the form of a Happy Meal toy. Like the film in general, the “Our Town” sequence is staggeringly beautiful but strangely empty, an early misstep from a studio that seemed, at that point, downright infallible. The titular automotive Americans of Cars might not show their age. But for the first time in its history, Pixar was starting to.