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Cars 2 Isn't a Lemon. It's a Saab.
July 7, 2-11
I took my grandsons, ages 7 and 3, to see Cars 2. I was disappointed. But so is every adult who sees it. The 3-year-old was so bored he finally took off his 3-D glasses. He behaved himself, but he was not into the movie. The 7-year-old, who can practically recite the dialogue of Pixar movies, did not talk about the movie after it was over when we went to McDonalds (where else?) to get the obligatory happy meals (what else?). He can recite details of movies and video games with paralyzing attention to detail.
He was ready to see it again. But he did not talk about it.
Understand, these two watch Wall-E with such rapt attention that they act out each scene. They watch it over and over.
So, what went wrong with Cars 2?
It wasn't the anti-big oil plot, which is inserted only at the end, and is almost an after-thought. Yes, the writer-director is your standard knee-jerk liberal on the subject big oil and alternative energy. He jerked his knee in full public view in an interview in the Wall Street Journal. But the big oil connection has so little connection to the story line that an adult has to think through exactly what the motivation of the ultimate villain was. "Convoluted" does not begin to describe it. There is no way that a child will figure it out, or care.
The movie is not a dud. It is a B- in comparison with previous Pixar films. We had expected another A.
Why isn't it a dud? Because it stars Larry the Cable Guy and the never-ending Michael Caine, who sounds just as good as he did in Zulu in 1964.
The movie is only peripherally about Lighting McQueen. It is about Mater, the tow truck. This is reasonable. Mater dominates the short TV cartoons that are tied to the Cars franchise. He was always more interesting than Lightning.
The key to a captivating child's story is the moral benefit of overcoming some challenge. The hero has a weakness of some kind, but through moral strength and courage, which develop as the story goes on, he overcomes the challenge. In Finding Nemo, the father overcomes his paralyzing fears because of his commitment to finding his son and bringing him home. In Monsters, Inc., the monsters overcome their paralyzing fear of small children for the sake of the children. They mature.
The most successful Pixar films center on people who mature, except they aren't people. The fear of Woody and the gang is that their child owner will mature, leaving them behind. What child needs child's toys when he becomes a teenager? In Toy Story 3 one toy -- the villain -- never got over the transition. He became morally warped. The movie's plot was resolved by finding a new child for the toys to serve. This is also when the toys finally mature. It is why the film is a tear-jerker. The boy grows up. So do the toys. Childhood ends. (Well, not quite. With so much money in sequels, there will be Toy Story 4.)
The most successful Pixar stories are about service. Nemo's father serves Nemo. The toys serve Andy. The monsters wind up serving the little girl.
In Cars, a self-serving Lightning McQueen finds happiness by learning to serve the people of Radiator Springs. They in turn find meaning in serving him, the famous racer.
We see the same plot in Doc Hollywood (1991), a low-budget piece of fluff that is run again and again on cable TV, because it always finds an audience. The hot-shot would-be plastic surgeon winds up through a series of wrong turns in Hicksville, which is populated with real people. These people are in need. They have no money and no way to get out, but they live in a place far off the beaten path where the good life is still available. The hero dreams of getting to Hollywood and becoming a clone of George Hamilton.
There are a few traces of the service motif in Cars 2. Mater wants to serve Lighting, but Lightning thinks he is just too stupid. The story is about Mater becoming the hero through his bumbling ways, but coupled with a specialist's knowledge of his job: why engines break down. In his own field, he is a master. That is a good theme for any age group. It can make for a good story. But Cars 2 has a weak story. It spends too much time on racing.
The writers forgot the obvious: the key to the Cars franchise is not racing. Racing is only the backdrop. The key to the franchise is -- or should have been -- personal moral self-discovery. There is no moral self-discovery in Cars 2. There is discovery that Mater's homespun stupidity is offset by his specialist's insights, but this is not a moral discovery. There are good guys and bad guys battling for . . . what? Why? The story line is so convoluted that it is resolved at the end without moral insight. It is about big oil vs. humanity.
The Pixar people got close to the edge of the environmentalist abyss in Wall-E, which was why it was the weakest of the Pixar films before Cars 2. The moral development in that film had to do with non-serving overweight humanity learning to take control over their lives. It was about being too dependent on technology. But this was corporate self-discovery, not individual self-discovery, except for the captain, who is not the hero of the movie. The hero is a robot, and robots in the movie do not develop morally. That was why the movie was weak.
Wall-E is about one robot that is programmed to pile up trash and another that searches for any signs of a plant. Plants are seen as socially redemptive. This is the theme of organicism vs. mechanism -- a 200-year-old theme in Western civilization. Liberals cheer for plants. Libertarians cheer for machines. Conservatives can't make up their minds.
Fundamentalists are unaware of the debate.
This has been the underlying theme of modern philosophy ever since Kant over two centuries ago: the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the ideal of science and the ideal of personality. Our tools give us power, yet we become dependent on our tools. Our tools begin as extensions of ourselves, yet we in some way have become extensions of our tools, which are fundamentally inhuman. They may become anti-human. The Terminator franchise has this as its theme.
The question is: How can mankind resolve this tension? The libertarian answers: "personal responsibility, lower taxes, reduced government regulation, innovation at all levels, private schools, and personal liberty." The conservative answers: "family values, lower taxes, reduced government regulation, maintaining national traditions, public school reform, a somewhat more balanced budget, and starting a war in [al-Qaida haven nation]." The liberal answers: "civic values, increased government regulation, higher taxes on the rich, political reform, deficit spending, public school reform, and backing the conservatives' war, but only because of the enemy nation's anti-democratic ideology."
The fundamentalist answers: "Who was Kant? Did he believe in Jesus?"
Every time the Pixar writers let their liberalism creep into their plot lines, they weaken the appeal of their films. When they keep their liberalism to themselves, they get Toy Story. Why? Because Toy Story is about doing good, not do-goodism.
The strength of their films is their commitment to the theme of doing good. The bane of their films is their commitment to do-goodism. Do-goodism is corporate. Doing good is personal. Do-goodism leads to self-satisfaction -- the same moral weakness that undermined the old Lightning McQueen. Doing good produces inner change.
Do-goodism fights The Uncaring System. There was no Uncaring System in Finding Nemo. There was no Uncaring System in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. There was in Toy Story 3: the bad section of the day care. But it was the extension of one toy's paranoia, not because of the day care as a system. Liberals believe in day care. When Pixar ignores Uncaring Systems, the company makes more money.
What should the folks at Pixar do? Whenever the team gathers together to work on a plot, and someone's knee jerks, sending a leg upward, the others should chant, "knee jerks never work, although tear-jerks can." Otherwise, Cars 3 will be about a greedy land developer who tries to buy up Radiator Springs to turn it into a theme park. His voice-over will be done by Alan Rickman.