‘Cars’ slows down in the most meaningful of moments

Image still from the Pixar film Cars. Features several animated cars at a gas station in front of a building with a sign that says Flo's Cafe.

‘Cars’ takes hotshot racer Lightning McQueen away from the fast tracks of Los Angeles to the slowed down streets of Radiator Springs. (Photo courtesy of IMDb)

One of my favorite Pixar films of all time is “Cars.” Sure, it’s an animated kids movie, but it’s a lot more than just talking cars and racing. Instead, it’s a larger metaphor for life that questions not only what drives us but also whether or not it’s what sustains us. 

In “Cars,” the audience is told from the beginning that flashy race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has one goal, to get to Los Angeles and compete for the pinnacle of racing achievement: the Piston Cup. However, it’s worth noting that the majority of the film isn’t even set in L.A. but instead in the small Arizona town of Radiator Springs along Route 66. McQueen is forced to stay there and fix the road after accidentally wrecking it, much to his chagrin. He just wants to get going on his path to L.A. and despises getting stuck at what he views as a dead end.

McQueen doesn’t quite vibe with the Radiator Springs philosophy, where enjoying the people (or cars) and nature around you is more important than winning any award. Consequently, most of the cars in Radiator Springs initially view McQueen as a selfish, immature and vain race car. Yet, McQueen’s desire for productivity isn’t a novel sentiment. In fact, it could be said that, in some ways, going to L.A. is a projection of his dream and, by association, big-city living. 

During McQueen’s stay, a Porsche named Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) introduces McQueen to Route 66, where she says the road moves with the land. It wasn’t until later, she tells him, that an interstate was constructed that cut through the land and effectively removed Radiator Springs from the map — all just to “save time” so that cars could reach their destinations faster. McQueen is shocked at this revelation. 

Carrera also reveals to McQueen that she was once a hotshot lawyer in L.A. until she suffered from burnout, finding that there was no meaning in her life. It was only when she got to Radiator Springs that she truly became happy. By the time McQueen gets to L.A. for the competition, he’s changed and can’t stop thinking about the small town he’s come to appreciate. 

This past summer, my family and I visited Williams, Ariz. along Route 66 and the surrounding areas for a “glamping” experience. We lived in a small dome with no Wi-Fi and internet connection. It was a frustrating experience for me, mostly because I was trying to submit an assignment for an internship and wasn’t able to. During my time there, I kept trying to find an internet connection so I could submit and work on all my assignments.

Sometimes desert bugs and dust would creep in, and I’d get frustrated because I just wanted to be in what I envisioned was a shiny L.A. apartment and complete all my assignments so I could advance my post-college career. 

I’d spent so much time trying to get into USC and was still somewhat unsatisfied at how there is so much I hadn’t achieved yet. I wrote out what opportunities I wanted to pursue in L.A. and envisioned myself as a “successful” person, whatever that meant. Like McQueen, I did resent what I perceived as an unnecessary stay. I didn’t step out of the dome much, but a frustration with the lack of internet led me out one evening. 

As cliché as it sounds, the nature around me was the kind you keep thinking about. It was the first time I’d been out in so much dirt, dust and grass. I loved it. There was this beautiful hazy evening sky, the moon was just coming out and you could hear the rustle of animals all around you. It’s a scene that I miss a lot now as I write this in my apartment with the revving of motorcycles, angry honking and the screeching of cars that, like McQueen, are rushing to get somewhere faster without interruptions or who just want to win a race they’ve created for themselves that no one else is participating in.

I think what “Cars” tells us is that it’s OK to stop and pull over sometimes to look at reality more than our illusions. Something I’ve felt as a USC student, and a transfer especially, is the fear of being left behind. If “life is a highway,” as Tom Cochrane’s song goes in the movie, then I often feel like I’m one of the slowest cars. I’m asking if I’m right for the highway, but I’m never asking if the highway is right for me. 

The idea of stopping and smelling the roses isn’t a new one, but “Cars” renders it beautifully. Maybe as USC students, we can relate to the feeling of viewing college or USC as a stepping stone for our future dreams. Maybe like McQueen, we’re in love with this idea of L.A. and what it might represent for us: perhaps not winning the Piston Cup but winning something else in life. It’s OK to pursue these dreams, but it’s also OK to detour a bit and to take the more scenic route. Instead of accelerating all the time, it might even be OK to take a “brake” (get it?) every once in a while.

I spent so much time at home wanting to come to L.A., but now that I’m here, I find myself reflecting on home a lot. I can’t help thinking that, unlike what Cochrane says, life isn’t about the highway at all. It’s about the moment that you turn off the engine and realize: Here, in this space, is where you park. 

Valerie Wu is a junior writing about film, television and visual culture in relation to Los Angeles. Her column, “Reel LA,” runs every other Monday.