Cars: The gift of change

Cars took a unique approach to Pixar movies thus far: It gave you a charming lead character that was kind of a jerk.

Cars: The gift of change

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.


Cars was a fresh perspective for Pixar in 2006. It’s not a new concept that the film stars anthropomorphized cars with faces and mouths; the company had already animated toys and fish and bugs with the characteristics of humans. The new move rolled out by Cars is the introduction of a truly unlikable main character. Pixar hadn’t yet tried that approach. Woody was lovable, and despite Buzz’s newness and outsider status, one couldn’t help but be dazzled by his bells and whistles. Flik in A Bug’s Life was a lovable loser, too smart for his own good and too clumsy for anyone else’s. Mike and Sulley were actually very sweet monsters, one a workaholic and the other an under-appreciated, slightly conceited romantic. Marlin, Nemo, and Dory were the friendliest fishes in the ocean. The Incredibles were a quirky family, but all of the characters were sweet and endearing in their own way.

But Lightning McQueen was a pompous ass from the second we meet him. He’s completely hubristic and self-centered and rude and abrasive. In short, completely unlike any character we’re actively supposed to root for.

It sets up a classic and easily recognizable hero’s arc for McQueen, and honestly, it’s a bit surprising that it took Pixar so long to strike this chord. It’s been a reliable staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s bag of tricks, from Tony Stark to Stephen Strange: brilliant, talented, exceptional characters who are flawed and despicable but possess a heart of gold underneath it all.

Since McQueen’s character arc is dramatic yet predictable, the more interesting characters to me are Mater, the tow truck, and Sally, the former lawyer Porsche.

Mater is supposed to be the goofy sidekick of a character, playing up his Southern accent and obvious ignorance. His comedic turns aren’t the funniest in the film to me, which is perhaps a reflection of my own Southern upbringing and a subtle aversion to that brand of humor. Where Mater shines in my estimation is his sincerity.

McQueen doesn’t actually begin his heroic turn until after spending some quality time with Mater. McQueen is a flight risk in the town, and one night, Mater is assigned to watch him. While Mater understands this task for what it is, he more naturally views it as an opportunity to hang out with McQueen as a friend. He takes him tractor-tipping, an anthropomorphized car-world’s version of rural cow-tipping.

At first, McQueen is unconvinced that the activity is (or even should be) fun, but after he finally leans into Mater’s plan, he enjoys himself. They raise hell and run away, and Mater ends up calling McQueen his best friend. This is more meaningful to McQueen than he lets on, but we know just how much he values the statement because we’d seen earlier in the film how McQueen had no friends to invite to his big race when offered free tickets.

While McQueen’s turn is what’s celebrated, it’s more important to focus on the one who enabled it in the first place. It’s easy to be a McQueen in this world: to go through life as an asshole and finally see the error of your ways. But it’s much harder to go through the world as a Mater: sincere and trusting to a fault, giving to those who don’t necessarily deserve it.

Sally, the former lawyer who fled the big city to a quieter existence on Route 66, is the other twin inspiration for McQueen’s heroic turn. At first, he’s simply dazzled by her beauty; he notices her and then he somewhat wilts when she doesn’t automatically see what’s so great and wonderful about him. It’s in the aftermath of hanging out with Mater that McQueen really stops to think about Sally’s feelings. She talks to him, and he can tell she’s put off by his responses. As she drives away, he realizes he needs to try to rectify the situation, so he thanks her for her hospitality and compliments her restoration of the motel. He genuinely means what he says, and she can tell; she’s moved by it. Both of them, in that moment, begin to see and feel something deeper in the other.

It’s not necessarily original that the cocky guy does something to impress the pretty girl. It is, however, realistic. What may begin as a surface-level natural attraction can often deepen after getting to know someone else, and once that happens, it’s not unnatural to become a better person for the sake of new love. Whether it’s sincere and whether it lasts are ultimately questions of character and compatibility, but every second, every minute, every hour and every day we better ourselves, truly better ourselves, for whatever reason, is a treat.

There are a million pitfalls along this path, and some may insist that changing for another person, losing sight of one’s self, is a terrible thing. I tried to address that by qualifying my statement to “truly better ourselves,” because if we can do so (and want to do so), it’s a gift that we’re ever given the opportunity.

I’m not advocating changing simply when you think someone wants you to change. Nor am I saying that change can only come when there’s another person you’re trying to impress, just like I’d never say that one has to wait until Jan. 1 to make new resolutions for his or her life. A person can change and truly better himself or herself any time of day, any day of the week.

What I’m stressing is the gift of finding someone special enough to make you want to reconsider your life anew. You can like the person you are just fine, but if you are ever lucky enough to find someone who makes you want to be an even better version of yourself, well then, you have found something special.

McQueen finds that in Sally. What he learns about her is what makes him want to be a better version of himself. She was unhappy, she said. She was living in L.A., in the fast lane, making lots of money being a lawyer, and at the end of the day, she realized she was miserable. Commonly understood markers of success were not enough to sustain her, and she got away from it all and found herself in a small town along Route 66, among people who took her in and cared for her.

McQueen was slowly learning (though it’s clear he’d internally battled some of these feelings before) that his prowess as a race car was not satisfying to him. He’d never related more to a statement than Sally’s description of feeling empty though all indications said she should feel the opposite. He also had no one to discuss that creeping sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction because he’d lived his life in such a way as to be toxic to would-be friends. He catches a glimpse of life in another form, defined by close-knit friends, a sense of community, the absence of razzle and dazzle that had so appealed to him when daydreaming about new corporate sponsorship and fame, the love of a partner.

Sally opened McQueen’s eyes to a world beyond racing; she showed him what he’d been missing out on since he’d walled off his heart.

McQueen goes on to do sweet things for all of the other cars in Radiator Springs, and our hearts swell as we watch him spread joy. He is out of sorts during the early stages of his big race because he misses his new friends, and we can sense his growth. He runs a good race, a smart race, an inspired race, and he could have won based on sheer talent. But he chose to lose in order to pay his respects to The King’s last race after he crashes on the last lap, and we know that’s not something he’d have done before learning lessons from Doc Hudson, the grumpy old former champion race car.

These are the moments of McQueen’s heroic turn that we celebrate, that make us feel good inside.

I smile for McQueen, as I’ve been the unlikable version of him at various points in my life. I choose to view the film as a cause for celebration and a call to remember those in our lives like Mater and Sally. A full and satisfied life does not depend on such people in our lives, but when we’re lucky enough to have them, we’re duty-bound to recognize them for the gifts that they are. For when we find them, they make the world feel as if it has no stop signs or speed limits; life is just pedal-to-the-floor, full-throttle fun with these types in it.


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