Josh Berta | Reviews

Cars: Pixar Falls for Intelligent Design

Crop from the Cars movie poster

Like many people, especially creative types, I’m a big fan of Pixar movies. Their story telling, artful animation, and great voice acting are unrivaled in the realm of animation production. However, they do sometimes take missteps, especially in their design choices. Take for example A Bug’s Life, where the ant characters only have 4 limbs, or the bizarre conceit in Ratatouille that a rat can control a human’s actions by yanking on his hair. It’s perhaps easy to overlook such small things, but in otherwise well thought out environments and scenarios, they are poorly conceived and glaringly so.

Without question, their greatest misstep in design, and perhaps in general, is the film Cars. Released in 2006, this film follows the “stranger comes to town” adventures of stock car racing sensation Lightning McQueen. While it was less than loved by critics, there is no question it was a commercial success. In fact, some would say it is Pixar’s most obvious grab at a pay day, appealing to the NASCAR set without even the thinnest of veils. But I would argue its middle-American appeal goes much deeper than its subject matter. Indeed, I believe Cars is a vehicle for the conservative, science-denying belief known as Intelligent Design.

Rooted in the Creationist philosophy, Intelligent Design attempts to explain complex scientific phenomenon, especially biological systems such as photosynthesis, or the structure of the human eye, as being the work of a Designer, commonly understood to be the Christian God. In essence, anything that science has failed to yet explain is easily attributable to the work of a higher being whose intelligence, and rationale can never be understood via human empirical thinking.

Cars, more than any other Pixar world, is designed and built with that very premise as its foundation. It is a world populated entirely by cars, trucks, aircraft, and RVs. These vehicles are essentially stand-ins for human beings. Their only companions in the animal kingdom seem to be tractors (which are cows), combines (bulls), and little VW Beetles as winged house flies. Other than a pair of steer horns mounted to the front of a Cadillac, and the dinosaur logo of Dinoco Oil, there is no sign of any animal we would recognize... Not a bird in the sky, nor a squirrel in a tree. So one is left to surmise that sentient vehicles simply exist, and always have, independent of any other circle of life.

Dinoco Oil, still from the movie Cars

The design of the vehicles is devoid of any suggestion of natural selection. The cars have eyes in their windshield, and mouths, complete with teeth and tongues, between their headlights. (Apparently motorcycles don’t exist, presumably because the Designer couldn’t figure out how to give them a face.) They can flex and move their metal frames, undercarriages, and tires at will, and yet they are undoubtedly made of metal, plastic and rubber. They are imbibed with life, which apparently allows them to ignore the laws of physics. Conveniently, non-living fixtures made of those same materials (buildings, furniture, etc.), obey those laws. Indeed, it is those very fixtures that offer the most disturbing glimpse into the Designer’s machinations. It’s as if the world was made by humans, now long gone, and replaced by living, breathing autos. One might expect Charlton Heston to crash land on the planet and later discover that those maniacs blew it up.

On this Planet of the Cars, buildings not much different than ours awkwardly accommodate their four-wheeled tenants, gas pumps — again, like ours — operate with precision simply by pressing a button the ground, and farms, growing vegetables for goodness know who, line the highways. Even the cars themselves are at the whim of a seemingly human mind. They have doors and windows that never open. They’re alive and moving, but can only drive with gas in their tanks. Boy cars and girl cars are attracted to each other, raising awkward questions about reproduction (and yet, no kid cars?). Photojournalist cars are forced to use large, clumsy, tired-mounted rigs to hold cameras, and the racing pit crew chiefs wear comically huge earphones on their non-ears. Perhaps the greatest injustice seen is a minivan toting a mattress atop its roof down the interstate. Do I need to mention they don’t sleep in beds?

But there are a couple of crucial elements in the design of this world that point not to a human overlord, but an all-powerful Designer with a bad case of motorhead. The rock formations surrounding the movie’s main location, the town of Radiator Springs, resemble similar landmarks of our American Southwest, particularly Monument Valley, with one major difference: They are in the shapes of cars and car parts. That would be as if our Mount Rushmore was a naturally occurring phenomenon. But even more inexplicable than the Geo-logy: if one looks closely enough, cloud formations resembling tire tracks can be seen drifting through the sky. Certainly, it’s no mistake that this most befuddling design element is also the most heavenward. There’s something up there, and It won’t be explained. But It does have a name, and we can thank the tractor trailer character Mack for this revelation. Upon finding his lost friend McQueen late in the second act, he exclaims, “Thank the Manufacturer!” Must we?

Tire mark clouds, still from the move Cars

This weekend Cars 2 opens. It will be the first Pixar movie I make a point of not seeing. It’s not that I even mind so much that it’s propaganda, or even that it’s propaganda for “The Manufacturer.” In theory, I could forgive that. What I can’t forgive is that director John Lasseter and his team hung their hat on Intelligent Design, and alas, it’s anything but.

Posted in: Media

Comments [70]

Hilarious satire article, you should write for the onion!

Wow…how's the air up there?
Colin Santos

Ha! I could take you seriously, but then your intelligent design theory wouldn't hold up. I could think it a joke, satire as you call it, but then I would suspect it was a devious plug for the movie so that designers would notice all of the interesting details and creative approaches to this unique world. I know I am certainly more interested in a thrashing critique over a shameless endorsement any day.

And while I haven't seen the movie, your core criticism of intelligent design falls a bit short if you haven't actually seen the movie either. I can guess however that the fundamental glorification of gas-guzzling American-mades are not shown to be the last dieing vestige of our oil-addicted society with some super powered solar car winning the day. But more like a utopian idea of today's machines making the right choices for "society" and the planet itself - further emphasizing how we should trust corporations because the good ones design moral machines.

Regardless, it's fun to imagine machines like Milton the Toaster that work on their own AND have emotions and morals - regardless of where their scruples or designs come from. It helps us forget about our responsibilities to the decaying environment outside of the box theater or beyond our 52" plasma.

Yea, I probably will skip this one as well.

I consider myself a gear head and "cars" was my least favorite of the Pixar movies. Now I know why.
Alfonse Tomato

Hey folks:
It's fantasy. It's made for entertainment. To enjoy.

Time to get over yourself, Josh. Everything doesn't have a higher meaning. Try letting loose a bit; you'll enjoy your life a lot more.

Not to mention that cars can't talk! Pixar must really think their audience are a bunch of rubes to go along with that!

My 2 children, both young boys aged 5 and 8 can't wait to see this film. I would imagine that they form part of the major demographic that this film is aimed at. I am pretty certain that any notions about 'Intelligent Design' will never enter their minds while enjoying an outing to the movies.

I think this is the first time I have to call Poe's law regarding an atheists writings.

You forgot to mention that monsters don't acually power their cites with the screams of little children. Or that an old man can't fly his house to south america with ballons.
Or that toys can't acually talk. I mean, to think that Pixar had the audacity to say that toys are able to talk; this is a much bigger issue. Via enabling the toys to be able talk they are explicity stating that there is a higher power above that is able to give life to inanimate objects. A God like power if you will. Possibly even *the* God.
john smothson

As a satire, it is way too long; it stops being funny after the second paragraph.


*Ahem* Josh, you are a fucking idiot.

@john smothson: You're a pretty good sartirist yourself.

This isn't satire. This is trolling.
Andrew N.P.

notsureifserious jpeg goes here
Adrian D Farker

You mean Pixar movies are animated?!?!? Gasp!!!!!

Joe Moran

Josh, I hope you're joking. Because that would make it okay.

But if you're not, you need to realise that not everything is a conspiracy or can be reduced to fit into your individual world-view. My analytical mind asks the same kind of genesis questions re Cars, but my intellect overrules this and tells me to chill out and take in what is purely a suspended-reality story whose only socio-political point is the sad demise of small towns along Route 66.

Deep breath and relax, pal.

You know, a lot of atheists are going to be surprised at the end of there lives to be face to face with their creator. You would think that people in the design field would understand and appreciate how much time effort and intelligence goes into making something as mundane as a chair, yet they will still say that humanity and the universe millions of times more complex than a chair was an accident. This kind of "scientific naivete" boggles the mind. .

People seem to be getting kind of apoplectic about this, especially out of concern that the author might be serious. Well, the author's bio gives a very clear clue that, in fact, he's not serious: "...He authors the tongue-in-cheek design criticism blog Pr*tty Sh*tty...."
Rob Henning

You read my mind. I refuse to watch the first movie because I noticed these things.

Usually, it's the religious nutjobs who see conspiracy where no exists. I guess it's refreshing to see an atheist nutjob this time around.
(Unless this is satire. I which case, well done).
Ryan Roach

And where exactly does Mr. Berta say he is an atheist?
Rob Henning

I always assumed the world of Cars was the result of an automated nanofactory gone mad, ala the opening pages of James P Hogan's Code of the Lifemaker. They mimic human culture out of instinct (or, if you will, residual programming).

Alternatively, it might actually be Cybertron in the distant past.

Not sure if serious...

In the middle-American blue-collar colloquialism—are you forreal????

I hope this article wasn't a uncanned from a 100 level English correspondence course! You make some pretty far stretches here, but the smear job of Intelligent Design is just a little over the top. I'm not sure how this ended up on DO, but I hope there isn;t more of this to follow.
Eric MacLeod

If you're joking, well done

If you're serious, here's 2 facts.

1. It is a work of fiction

2. you're giving atheists a bad name

Hey, if you think Pixar is a bunch of evil, knuckle-dragging morons, you should watch the new My Little Pony. They let a character be injured because she believed science too much, and not her superstitious friends.

Please bash My Little Pony next. Pretty please? I'll forward it anywhere you want...
Pinkie Pie

You know what bothers me? In Babar the Elephant or other elephant-humanoid character driven cartoon (such as The Large Family) they always retain elephant-style flat hooves for hands.

Now how am I supposed to believe that they got to this period in their civilisation with all these buildings and such? Oh sure, there are monkeys in Babar's land who could have done the work, but how about the rest of their daily lives?

No, I will not accept this kind of nonsensory.

I think the biggest problem is that, as satire, this just isn't very funny. This makes it seem serious and it is definitely not funny in that form. Try harder please.
michael etter

@Michael Etter, satire doesn't necessarily equate to funny, it does however equate to absurdity which is exactly what this article is. And through it's absurdity constructively criticizes a societal movement. In this case intelligent design.
Ryan Artell

This is such a funny article, good work!
Hector Torres

Well, I hope u are mostly just posturing but do u go postal because there 8 hot dog buns and not 10? My theory on cars is that by spending so much time in cars, we become cars - in effect - cyborgs ... But mostly, it's a fun entertaining movie. It might not be up your "staggering" intellectual standards that all things must be but it's like the original mini Cooper, it makes very little sense in parts but combined, it's fun ... It's easy not to get cars or cars 2 as it's just designed to be a fun ride - maybe that's not good enough for you - that everything must also be so much more - that's fine but u miss out on a lot of fun by focusing on the the tree planting pattern and not the beauty.

I love it!
It is human nature to give life. Nature makes it easy for us to enjoy it. Seems like Cars is a good example of a bunch of designers and writers playing manufacturer. Human nature right?
I'm ok with the "Manufacturer" references. Like most skeptic gnostics I have no idea what that means to you, but I know that it could mean a million things to me.

Well done on the article. Too bad you didn't mention any thing about how petrol powered motorheads are well on the way to finding a quick destruction for our planet and yet this isn't even touched on in the film. Bad manufacturing I suppose.
J Potter

Joking or not the article was asinine.
Pat Hobby

I think satire works best when there is a little gem of truth. I think that Cars is definitely Pixar's weakest film and it might have something to do with the odd choice of anthropomorphic cars and there seemingly car-centric universe (with no sign of diversity.) The cars have a lack of environmental responsibility too and all the cars seem to yearn for the days when everyone bought more stuff from them. I also thought it was a boring story and the fact that they are even making a sequel really only means one thing...ca$h money.

I think anyone that challenges our views of film with a different perspective or analysis from the norm is a good addition to the conversation. Why all the hatin on Josh?

As far as I know, Josh is not an atheist. This seems like well disguised satire.

I think you used "imbibed" to mean "imbued."

In appreciating this article, it also helps to understand the conversation surrounding the movie. Here's one of a few links available:


Kudos to Mr. Berta. The comments following the article are just as entertaining.
Tim Belonax

"Thank the Manufacturer!" is a Star Wars joke, not an admission of a belief in intelligent design. Come on, see a few more movies.

Aimed at the NASCAR set? And here I was thinking they were marketing it to that other demographic that obsesses over anything car-related: boys aged zero to, well, anything.

I hate that I know this, but I have an almost 5 year old son so Cars lives in our dvd player. There are definitely birds in the movie. They fly by some telephone wires as Mack is first off and driving McQueen to California. Life is a Highway is playing.

Besides that, that's some clever satire. I also wondered about the farms.....

I want some of whatever you're smoking...suspension of disbelief dude...wow...you must be the only one that takes yourself seriously.

I want some of whatever you're smoking...suspension of disbelief dude...wow...you must be the only one that takes yourself seriously.

Miss your undergraduate cultural studies class, Josh? I wrote a lot of bullshit in mine too. Thank God I had the sense not to publish it on the Internet.

Brevity is the soul of wit. As such, your parody is bloated.

Wait, I distinctly remember kid cars in the movie. They were in the stands at the race at the beginning.

It'd be amazing to see the face of this article's author if we could put him in the room where they brainstormed up the ideas for the first Cars movie. I assure you he'd look mightily embarrassed for having concocted up this article if he knew how these sort of things often come into existence. We all like to think that these sort of things, movies, music, literature, art and so on all come from some deeply thought-out place but sometimes it really is as simple as "let's make a movie with cars that are alive and can talk!".

Great article, why all the haters commenting? Seriously, I love every word of this.

The only shortcomings of this article are its lack of Sarah Palin 2012 Presidential Campaign references. Cmon Josh, you have to follow the crumbs here and bring this thing full circle.

This argument is stupid, and I will explain why.

1. Suspension of disbelief. I know it's hard, but you do it whenever you watch a fantasy show and enjoy it, or a unhistorical historicla piece. Whatever old guy in the clouds knows what you might make of Mel Brooks' History of the World Part 1.

2. Like some other Pixar films, the movie's world is based wholly in itself, just as Monsters Inc. is based in a world that, by all accounts, cannot exist in any manner, but allows the physics-bending ability to play a game of Tag through inverted, sideways and continuous connections between two wholly-parasitic worlds, where mechanics operate on the screams or laughter of children not of that world. Seriously? Thus the world of Cars is canon in and of itself, rather than some experiment or contiuum that influences or is influenced by our own.

3. Expectation of the familiar. Just as Pixar had to work hard at making their human characters believably human, a problem in the earlier Toy Story movies and later evolving into Ratatouille and the Incredibles, and now with Brave (previews of next movie), the idea is that we see and are comforted by what seems familiar to us. We know the faces seem odd and distorted, and thus find difficulty feeling what is being conveyed to us is plausible. As such, Cars needs cars to look like cars ... and humans ... and it has to be familiar. Thus you get headlights, sideview mirrors, "doors" including power-locking (in the original), and apparently invasive open-hood surgery they don't need any sort of medicine for.

4. Pareidolia. You're seeing things here you are looking for, and thus find them. This should be a lesson, both for noting that the world is build with geologic formations that look like cars, buildings that look like cars, natural structures that sprout that look like wheels, etc. Otherwise, it's our world ... with CARS in it.
Jaime Headden

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Man, I REALLY can't tell if you're being serious or not... in the event that you are in fact joking, please ignore this comment.

Look, Pixar isn't "hanging their hat" on anything. The reason the Cars universe makes as little sense as it does is because it's made to sell toys. Period. I've got a hunch that the whole idea behind Cars was spawned in a Disney focus group and then pushed onto Pixar, who simply had to make the best of it. And they did, even though it's still their weakest film (mostly BECAUSE its world makes no sense). Cars 2 is being made for one reason: Cars 1 made a bajillion dollars off of merchandise, and Pixar's last few films (Wall-E, Ratty, Up, The Incredibles) are very un-merchandiseable by comparison. Whoever came up with the movie concept just wanted to sell toys and not put too much thought into it.
Michael Webbon

What the what?

Was contemplating between Cars 2 vs Kungfu Panda to watch tonight.
Cars 2 Toys Your Kids Will Love

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car 2

That was hilarious, you just submit that to the onion!

Wow! I just stumbled upon this through my RSS. I'm thinking this is a joke. Otherwise you might be the only person on earth that is hating on Pixar.

Part of your argument is that some of the events like a rat controlling a human by pulling his hair is absurd. I don't know what to say other than what's been said above. It's 3d animated movies (cartoons). It's not supposed to be based on reality. That's why we love it.

Even if these movies are specifically made to make money, sell toys, etc... They surpass by leaps and bounds a majority of movies that have come out in recent history in story, characters, and artistic value.

This is a movie for children. They watch it because they want to see cars talking and driving fast. That's it.

A great deal of people are religious and see the world in terms of intelligent design...Clearly the makers of this film sit within this demographic.

although this is not an intentional piece of intelligent design propaganda, it may well be the manifestation of these modes of thinking realised in a piece of cinema. Our underlying beliefs in the world will often show through the things we produce, albeit intentionally or not.
Chris Chapman

I don't know about an Intelligent Design message, but Cars is certainly infused with an American Exceptionalist message that I hope my kids don't pick up.

The pivotal scene, where Sally points to the Landscape to explain what she fell in love with, says it all: somehow, interstate highways ruin landscape, but two-lane highways don't - these concrete and asphalt structures "move with the land."

Somehow, driving at 60x walking speed along the interstate is an existential dilemma, but driving only 40x faster than walking speed represents living for the now in a transcendent moment.

Of course, the rise of the real Route 66, and object of intense affection in this film, developed in part & parcel with middle-class America's abandonment of urban centers, public transport, and was a clear prototype for the interstate highways that followed; it, like the interstates that followed, were principally tools of middle class mobility/flight that wrought huge, destructive changes to the landscape at every step.

And have been killing over 40,000 Americans every year for over 6 decades.

So, again, I hope my kids read this movie in pure allegorical terms, and I believe the characters of the film can transcend their mechanical trappings.

But knowing Lasseter's intense nostalgia for these things, and the larger culture's intense commitment to outfitting all citizens with 4,000lb carapces, its hard to think this movie is limited to selling only toy cars: it may not be pitching intelligent design, but it is certainly selling pollution, sprawl, and ultimately, the mangled wreckage of millions of lives cut short through the use of these destructive machines.
Mr. Downer

You really know how to read in to something. I mean, you really dig to the core of it. I have an idea, and it will be shunned as non-popular, but why don't you take all that energy and dissect and disprove the Bible. I mean, how hard can it be. You've apparently found the Rosetta Stone, the Key if you will, to all of this conspiracy, and since you have damned the folks at Pixar and their evil "Creationist" ways, you are more than prepared to disprove that evil, creationist book called the Bible. I look forward to your next insightful article where you talk about how Fern Gully and Avatar are just leftist "green" propaganda movies.
I want my click back.
Dennis King

NewsBusters| Cars 2: A Vehicle for Religious 'Science Deniers'?

is it still satire if it isn't funny?

I would never want to see a movie with you.


Evolution: The Creation Myth of Our Culture
by David Buckna (June 26, 2011)

Crap, I just wasted time that I will never get back reading this!

Josh, do your friends put up with listening to this? Relax, enjoy an animated movie for what is it supposed to be ... entertainment.

I hate to say it, but I love Pixar movies! What beautiful animation! Kids love those bright colors. I did.

//Beth @ the Graphic Design Agency

Dude. Lighten. Up. Smile. Smell roses. Frolic, play. Breath. Please…

I bet the Daffy Duck short where he battles with the cartoonist must really give you the vapors.

Thank you for this, this is well written and also a fantastic reminder of why it is hard to be a designer when you have viewers like yourself complaining about how our "fictional creations" are not realistic.....soak that in for a bit and when you are done digesting your own bull then perhaps you explain to me why people are so ignorantly blinded by things leaning towards "intelligent design" that it makes them jusr as narrow-minded as the Christian extremist that seem to bother you so much.

Don't worry, with a little practice you'll be real good one day :) Will

I wish I could dissect kids movies all day. You nailed the whole " shove logic up a cartoons butt" idea.

Now riddle me this: Where the fuck does Wiley Coyote get his health insurance and what are his rates? Lets be honest, your research could be put to better use elsewhere. So many cartoon loop holes and mysteries eating at my insides; I can barely take it anymore.

I totally giving you "Troll Article of the Month". You worked very hard for it and in my eyes, no good deed should go unrecognized.

Dare I say, this is what happens when "snark" tries to grow up and pass for actual big-boy commentary. Man, that's gonna leave a mark.

Jobs | July 12