The DONALD Rankings Top 20: #20 Cars

The DONALD Scores are rankings for Disney animated films that combine personal opinion with a pseudo-scientific veneer of hard data. For a full introduction to the DONALD system, please go here. Contribute your scores in the comments!


Welcome to the best of the best: the top twenty of the Deep Forest Outpost DONALD Rankings. I have been excited about these posts for several years, ever since we finished watching all of the Disney animated movies in a four-month span (and inventing a quackery-filled method of ranking them). Although there is something to love in all the Disney films — even the oddballs — the list from 1-20 is filled with treasures.

Lightning McQueen never settles for anything less than first place. Tow Mater is probably fine with twentieth. Image by Disney.

Released in 2006, Cars was the seventh full-length feature film from Pixar, and a passion project of their chief John Lasseter. It was also Pixar’s first movie that was not met with universal acclaim.

Which presents a problem for this list: a couple of the more critically heralded releases are ranked lower than Cars in the DONALD matrix. But, as will be made clear below, the movie scores high in some key points to give it a well-deserved spot in our top quarter of Disney films.

DONALD Score Sheet: Cars (2006)

1. Story: 7
Much of the criticism of Cars comes from the story, which, in all fairness, is a bit thin. The viewer has little doubt that Lightning McQueen’s time in Radiator Springs will change him for the better, and improve the quality of life for the collection of oddballs who live there. All the same, there are engaging details. Doc Hudson’s back story and eventual return to the Piston Cup world provides a good emotional punch.

Just like anywhere in small town America: the cop is waiting at city limits to write you a ticket.
Typical small town America: the cop is waiting at city limits to write you a ticket.

2. Music: 6
For Cars, Pixar used a couple of famous car songs (including “Life Is a Highway” — a good Tom Cochrane song that was repeatedly run over by Rascal Flatts) and combined it with a pedestrian Randy Newman score*. I found the overall effect to be good, but not great.

Not featured: “Cars” by Gary Numan. It would have been an improvement over a certain cover song, though.

[*An interesting note: the song “Our Town” was written by Newman for Cars and performed by James Taylor. It became an unofficial anthem for New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media.]

3. Animation Quality: 9
Pixar understood from their very first film (Toy Story) that one of the strengths of computer animation is to take real objects and breathe life into them. The perfection provided by computer modeling means Doc Hudson can look like an actual 1951 Hudson Hornet, not just a hand-drawn approximation. Combine that technical precision with the design, the details, and the gorgeous backgrounds of Radiator Springs, and the animation is a clear strength.

4. Memorable Protagonist: 8
Lightning McQueen starts the film as obnoxious and egocentric, and is transformed into a self-sacrificing good guy by the denizens of Radiator Springs. His journey is the backbone of the film, and although the concept is hardly unique to Cars, it is handled very well here. I liked, in particular, that Lightning never quite loses his specific character elements (sarcastic and funny, in his case), which often happens with similar stories.

“Speed. I am speed.” (Unless driving around mobs of little children, and then it is: “Caution. I am caution.”)

5. Memorable Antagonist(s): 5
Chick Hicks is the designated antagonist, and although he is more goofy than menacing, his actions drive (ha!) Lightning McQueen. But there is plenty of transformative conflict in the story, with Lightning acting as his own antagonist for much of the time, which is an interesting dynamic. Although Chick is an entertaining character, as a Disney Villain, he is pretty average.

6. Script: 8
Yes, the Cars script has an over-reliance on vehicle puns. But what else can a person expect from a movie about anthropomorphic cars? On balance, there are more outstanding lines than groan-inducing lines, and the dialogue is sharp. Some of the passages between Doc Hudson and Lightning McQueen are among my favorites in any Disney film.

Everyone tells Lightning McQueen his girlfriend is a little fast, if you know what I mean. He doesn't seem to care.
So, uh, awkward question: where do the new cars come from? I mean… well, you know what I mean.

7. Supporting Characters: 8
Lightning McQueen is such a strong character that the contributions of the supporting cast are not quite as obvious, but they still add crucial elements to the movie. Tow Mater is one of the all-time great sidekicks and I have always been a big fan of Doc Hudson, in particular.

8. Timelessness: 9
Cars is represented in Disney’s theme parks in an unprecedented way. Cars Land in Disney California Adventure is just like stepping into the movie, and Radiator Springs Racers might be the most entertaining attraction in that park. The characters are prominent in every store, every park parade, every television special, every marketing piece, and every Disney website. Cars is a ubiquitous Disney property right now.

In DCA you can visit the
In DCA you can visit the “Cars” ride in the “Cars” land, while wearing a “Cars” shirt stained from the “Cars” meal you spilled all over yourself at the “Cars” restaurant.

9. Voice Acting: 8
The voices for this movie are a good balance between frequent Pixar collaborators like John Ratzenberger* and Bonnie Hunt, and solid newcomers like Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy. This is a strong film for voices. This was Paul Newman’s final role in a major feature film, and to nobody’s surprise, he was wonderful.mrratzenberger

[*Has Pixar ever tried making a movie without John Ratzenberger? Would it even work? He may be the glue that keeps the entire crazy Pixar ship afloat.]

10. Charm/Intangibles: 8
I have a “car guy” setting that I switch to from time to time, so this film appealed to me from multiple angles. Cars has a compelling story, engaging characters, and beautiful animation. It has a rightful place in the modern Disney/Pixar pantheon, even if the critics didn’t like it.

DONALD Score: 76

One thought on “The DONALD Rankings Top 20: #20 Cars

  1. Jake

    To date this may be my personal favorite of Pixar’s films. I found the story charming and fun, the art style beautiful, and the music and characters to be well cast. I know overall the story lacks the depth of films like Inside Out and UP, but I liked this one a lot.

    If only the sequel hadn’t sucked so much.

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