Are the cars in “Cars” always the car they become?

“Were you rich?” Lightning interjects. 

“What?” Sally responds, put off by his question.

Sally was an attorney in Los Angeles, “livin’ life in the fast lane,” but never felt truly happy. So, she left. It didn’t matter to her story whether or not she was rich; it does, however, to this blog post.

We were watching “Cars” Saturday night when her story got me thinking: Were these cars always the cars they are now? Or, are cars in the “Cars” universe capable of physical change, like humans?

Sally’s is one of only two origin stories in the movie, but the only one that matters to me. The other is Doc Hudson’s. Doc was a championship race car before going into hiding in Radiator Springs. We’re told nothing else about him, making him no more helpful to us than the lead character Lightning McQueen, who is basically just Doc 50 years later also without any backstory to suggest how he became what he is. Sally, on the other hand, gives us a little more to build a story from.

First, let’s consider “Cars” within the broader Disney Pixar library.

These animated movies combine personification and anthropomorphism to make their characters look and act like humans, making them more attractive and relatable to the movies’ audiences. Of course, it talks no matter if it’s a mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, fish or inanimate object. A car gets big eyes and a smile. A grasshopper walks on its hind legs and shakes its first at a colony of ants. A post-apocalyptic trash vacuum falls in love. All living, breathing species have built-in origins because they all evolve. They get bigger, faster, stronger, smarter over time. That’s what they are, in the real world, and actually that’s the space Disney Pixar works in most often. But what about the inanimate subjects at the center of “Cars,” “Toy Story” and “Wall-E”? How did those characters get to be where they are in their movie’s present day? Were they always what they were presented to be then?

In the case of “Toy Story” and “Wall-E,” the answer is yes. Definitively, those characters were manufactured into exactly what they are, toys and machines. They do not change but for small embellishments. Their parts have gotten rusty over time. Their squeaker has run out. Their cloth arm has torn but can be sown back. Their stories change only based on the world around them. It’s believed that Woody belonged to Andy’s father first, then of course Andy, and then little Bonnie. As his owners change, his story evolves, but he never physically transforms (as much as he’d like to sometimes). That’s because they exist within the human world, in which a toy is a toy and a robot is a robot.

“Cars” does not, even though cars are as much a part of our real world as toys and machinery.

“Monsters Inc.” lands somewhere in between but shouldn’t be left out. Though its subject matter, depending on who you ask, is a figment of the imagination, the monsters exist in a parallel universe to the human world and can easily enough transport between the two. Therein, you could say they do exist in the human world. But, differently than toys, cars and miscellaneous futuristic machinery, their evolution is not tied to people. Mike, Sully and the others are presented with clear personal histories of physical and emotional development. They are virtually identical to humans in every way except for appearance. They go to school. They live in apartments. They have jobs. They like sushi.

This brings us back to “Cars.” The movie takes place on Earth, as if all intelligent life were just cars. The fans at sold-out Los Angeles Motor Speedway are cars. The insects are cars. There’s no evidence even that any species besides motor vehicles ever existed, making this movie an entirely different case study from all others in the Disney Pixar canon.

It’s a spin on the nature vs. nurture debate. In all of its movies, Disney Pixar humanizes its characters, whether they’re actual people, another living species, inanimate objects or imaginary creatures. The depth of the human experience applied in each case is where you can find holes, and we know so little about the cars in “Cars” that the only thing we can do is apply our imagination to form a backstory.

Here are, basically, the two schools of thought: 1) If we believe the “Monsters Inc.” example of evolution in a different universe (the closest reference there is), then we should assume that the cars in “Cars” would be afforded the same physical and emotional development abilities as the normal human experience. 2) If you don’t believe the cars are capable of evolution, then the only explanation for their existence is that they were built as they are — a race car, tow truck, police car, Porsche, etc. — and placed into that world. But by who or what? Is there a car god?

We know of course, since they are part of our everyday real lives, that cars do not grow larger as they age. (That’d be something.) But “Cars” does not exist in our everyday lives; these are not our everyday vehicles. They have faces, feelings and distinct voices. In many cases, they are designed to represent real people (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.). So, for what reason, other than that it’s not explored within the story, do we have to not believe that the “Monsters Inc.” representation of life is in fact being applied in the “Cars” universe? Miss Sally leaves us with a little bit of evidence to support that.

So, how does it work?

Sally is a 2002 Porsche 911 Carrera, an $80,000 car. Before finding happiness in Radiator Springs, all indications are that she was a successful attorney (generally, a well-paid job) in Los Angeles (an expensive city). It’s possible she was born a Porsche, yes; maybe her evolution was between a lesser Porsche and the Carrera. But isn’t it also possible, if not more creative to imagine, that she started out a Mazda or Honda and had to work hard to become the Porsche she is when she enters the story?

The two-minute history of Radiator Springs doesn’t provide any evidence that cars change makes or models over time. Mater rusts out but is still the same truck. Still, you couldn’t say that group of cars was doing anything to change their trajectory as you may say Sally was at the start of her legal career. Rather, the group in Radiator Springs just aged.

At least in racing, it seems inarguable that nature has any permanent impact. Doc and Lightning are two different kinds of cars, but it’s not new for the perception of an ideal race car to change over generations in the sport. However, the fact that there are at least three different types of cars racing with Lightning is unique, meaning that neither Doc nor Lightning had to get so lucky by nature to be a specific type of car to race.

The racers weren’t born with stickers on. In fact, there are a number of instances in the movie in which body paint is equated to clothing. Lightning changes in and out of his uniform (Rust-eze and the stickers) with ease, toggling between it and a more formal, retro look to impress Sally. Doc was covered in stickers during his career; in retirement, he changed his look. Neither of these examples are all that meaningful but still interesting. I’d say the most informative answers would come from Mater and the sheriff if we had them. Those two seem to wear their outfits permanently, but I find it hard to believe Mater would’ve been a tow truck in his youth. It seems more reasonable to me that he later would’ve been equipped with the towing cable and accessories because that’s what he chose to do. The same goes for the sheriff: a normal car before he put on the badge. And if that’s the case, isn’t it reasonable to surmise that Sally, too, evolved based on those same life choices? By making good money at a job for which dressing professionally is a must, Sally could’ve evolved into the Porsche 911 Carrera.

“Cars” shares so little about the history of their characters and because they exist in a universe so different than Disney Pixar’s usual grounds, there’s a lot left to the imagination. If the lives of these cars evolve like humans, like the monsters did, it’s possible that Sally, Lightning, Mater and the rest were not always the cars we meet on screen. How much they changed and how they did it is not even close to scientific fact.

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