What’s exciting about Cars — and the thing that has captured the imagination of filmgoers everywhere — is that the world consists of nothing but cars and other vehicles. They are the “people” and it’s their adventures that we’re following from film to film. Bonnie Hunt, who voices Sally Carrera (girlfriend of our hero, Lightning McQueen), points out, “When they write these movies at Pixar, they start with the heart of the character first. And once the heart is there, it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside. Even a car becomes a character and a personality. The heart and soul is what turns a steel car into a character and a person.”
What follows is our guide to the world of Cars (and spin-off Planes) in the order that the films and shorts were released.
The one that started it all! Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is driving to California to take part in an important race known as the Piston Cup. But somehow along the way he gets lost and ends up in a small town named Radiator Springs, a little place that the world has forgotten about thanks to the construction of a new Interstate. While driving through the town, Lightning accidentally causes some damage to the main road and is ordered by the town judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), to do repairs.
While there, Lightning is taught some racing tricks by Doc, becomes best pals with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and starts to fall in love with Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). He also discovers that Doc is actually the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” three-time Piston Cup winner whose racing career came to an end in 1954 following an accident.
Once the road is fixed, Doc alerts the media to the fact that Lightning is there and they descend on the town, escorting the young racer to Los Angeles and allowing Doc to avoid the spotlight. Everyone seems to have gone their own way, but there are surprises in store for each of them as the bonds they’ve formed come into play at the Piston Cup.
Director and co-writer John Lasseter explained to USA Today that the idea for Cars came from a cross-country trip he took in 2000 that allowed him to reconnect with his family. “When I got home,” he said, “I knew what the story for Cars would be: A character who relearns that the journey in life is its own reward.”
Mater and the Ghostlight (2006)
A short made by Pixar for the DVD release of Cars. The focus is on Mater, who, despite his early skepticism, comes to believe in the legend of the Radiator Springs Ghostlight, a blue orb of light that haunts the town. Growing increasingly paranoid, Mater starts to believe that he is being stalked by the Ghostlight, which could or could not be the case.
Mater’s Tall Tales (2008)
Eleven CG shorts that aired on Toon Disney and were included on DVDs and Blu-rays. The shorts follow the adventures of Mater and Lightning McQueen. The concept is that Mater tells stories of his past, which somehow start to incorporate Lightning, even though that’s impossible as they hadn’t met yet. Or had they?
Cars 2 (2011)
Things go in a very different direction in this first sequel. Lighting (Owen Wilson returns) is getting ready for the World Grand Prix, a race in three parts taking place in Japan, Italy and England, the winner to be deemed the world’s fastest race car. Somehow Mater, who’s accompanying him, is mistaken for a spy by British vehicle Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), and he ends up falling in love with Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), Finn’s assistant. Together the three of them discover a plan to sabotage the race, which must be stopped. Spoiler alert: they’re successful, and Mater even finds himself knighted by England’s queen. He’s offered the chance to join Finn on a continuing basis, but ultimately decides to stay in Radiator Springs.
Veteran actor Michael Caine, who voices Finn, commented to the The Telegraph, “It’s very cool playing a pale blue 1966 Aston Martin. And what an incredible name — it makes me sound dangerous.”
Tales From Radiator Springs (2013)
A series of four animated shorts focusing on different characters from Radiator Springs. The first three (“Hiccups”, “Bugged”, and “Spinning”) originally aired on Disney Channel, and have become available online. The fourth, “The Radiator Springs 500 1/2”, premiered in 2014 on the Disney Movies Anywhere digital movie service.
In many ways, this feels like a remake of the original Cars, but with planes instead. Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), is a dust cropper who dreams of becoming a racer, frequently practicing maneuvers while he works. He finally decides to try and make his dream come true—despite the way he’s dismissed by the planes around him. Barely managing to qualify for the Wings Across the Globe race, he has to try and overcome overwhelming odds, including his own fear of heights(!) and sabotage from other planes that see something special in him and want Dusty out of the competition. Along the way he gains new friends (Leadbottom, voiced by Cedric the Entertainer), a love interest and a reluctant trainer in the World War II navy plane Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach).
Comedian Dane Cook, the voice of Dusty, told Collider that his connection to the character came from his own fear of being in front of people as a young teen.
“When this project came along and I started to read it, I got very emotional,” he admitted. “I remember feeling this feeling in my life of not having any belief in myself, of being just very self-deprecating and not very healthy to myself. I was, like, I know that feeling. I can put my whole self into this. Every scene of this movie, every little bit of desperation that you hear, is me digging down and saying, ‘Let me remember and find that feeling of hopelessness that I felt.’ I used to feel hopelessness in my life. And it’s all in this performance.”
An animated short that was a part of the DVD release of Planes. In it, Leadbottom has decided to promote Vitaminamulch—his own product—by hosting an air show. Unfortunately, the main attractions have to cancel at the last possible moment, leaving Leadbottom in dire straights. Enter Dusty (Dane Cook) and Chug (Brad Garrett) to lend a helping wing.
Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014)
In this sequel to Planes, Dusty has been enjoying a wonderful career since the Wings Around the Globe race. But his tendency to push himself beyond his mechanical abilities results in permanent damage to his gearbox, causing him to crash at Propwash Junction Airport and inadvertently starting a fire. When that fire is barely contained, the airport is closed due to the lack of properly trained firefighter vehicles. Dusty, realizing his racing days are over, is faced with a choice: he goes back to his old life as a dust cropper or finds a new career. He decides to do the latter, and ends up at Piston Peak National Park, training to be a firefighter under the guidance of helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), a former TV star turned leader of an elite firefighting team.
Dane Cook, in a separate Collider interview, said of the sequel, “Dusty’s got this second chance. He’s got something that is going to impair him. That’s a very serious thing, and it makes a person shift their focus on what they’re doing with their life… You have two choices. I’ve been there. You can either sit on your couch and you can go, ‘Woe is me,’ and feel really bad, which feels good for a minute, and then you put on 20 pounds from all you’re eating. Or, you can get up and say, ‘Okay, back to the drawing board.’”
Cars 3 (2017)
Pixar describes the film in this non-spoilery way: ““Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician, Cruz Ramirez, with her own plan to win, plus inspiration from the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a few unexpected turns. Proving that #95 isn’t through yet will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage!”
In an interview with Screen Rant, Owen Wilson commented, “What made it a kind of interesting movie to work on, and certainly, when I watched it, the thing that I sort of found moving about it, was the relationship between Cruz and Lightning McQueen. My character is really facing some challenges and is looking to her for help. And she’s such a generous spirit that Lightning can be sort of, you know, self-consumed that it takes him awhile to recognize that this person has some dreams of their own and, when he finally recognizes that and begins to sort of help to make those happen the way that people have done for him, it is such a nice arc the way the story comes full circle."