Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 is in theaters today, and while no doubt we’ll get around to covering it eventually, I wanted to take this opportunity to address a very sore subject for me.
In honor of the new sequel’s release, the folks at Honest Trailers took aim at the first two movies in the franchise, leveling almost all their criticism at the 2011 follow-up. Oh, sure, they also pointed out some of the creepier aspects of the Cars universe we’ve all long puzzled over and/or refused to think about and/or thought about way too much, like: where are all the people? Is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been enslaved and/or destroyed by our own creations, kind of like a kid-friendly version of the Terminator mythology? Because if this is merely a world in which cars are the people, then why do they have doors?
And I have long had even more questions! Like, how come some big carpeople (ie. Mack) let smaller carpeople (ie. Lightning McQueen) travel around inside them? And it’s even worse when it’s the Dynoco helicopter! Plus, why are the bugs in this world also cars? Sure, it’s a cute VW reference, but still. Why are the cows tractors? Why do they need sleep? Isn’t that just when their engines are turned off? But if their engines are off, why do they snore?
Think too much about the underlying concepts surrounding this whole society and it really is very, very worrisome.
Which is why I advise you not to really think about it at all. No, it doesn’t make sense that cars need to use the restroom. No, I can’t think of any possible way that the proto cars of this world were able to find, drill and refine oil into gasoline in order to be cars in the first place. (So they must have killed us all!) It doesn’t make a lick of sense. But never mind all of that. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself.
I bring up the fuel issue here because that is largely what the plot of Cars 2 revolves around: fuel. And that’s why it is such a great addition to your child’s animated film repertoire, and why everyone who hates it so vociferously is missing the point. This entire film is an environmental message wrapped up in a James Bond-esque fantasy adventure, and that is important. Sure, films like FernGully: The Last Rainforest and The Lorax hammer kids over the head with the devastation that can be wrought by man, but here, it is more subtle and yet more accessible. There is not a lot kids can do to stop deforestation — not much that any of us can individually do — but the kid who loves this movie and then doesn’t grow up determined to buy a hybrid is a kid who, sorry, is kind of a sociopath.
So, our story. There’s a massive, untapped oil reservoir, a new biofuel that is set to lift the carplanet’s dependence on nonrenewable resources, and we have a monacle-wearing badcar by the name of The Professor who has built some kind of shifty device masquerading as a video camera. On the scene is one Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), of British Intelligence, and through a series of The Man Who Knew Too Little-style misunderstandings, he ends up believing rusty tow-truck and best-friend of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the simple-minded Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), to be a brilliant and cunning American intelligence agent.
Mater is very much the star of this movie, his uncouth ways and backwoods naïveté the main focus. McQueen has just returned to Radiator Springs with his fourth Piston Cup trophy and just wants some alone time with girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt). But before long Mater gets McQueen involved in the International Grand Prix, a series of three races to be held in Japan, Italy and England, and featuring all different types of racing cars: Formula 1, rally, touring and the like, as well as McQueen’s own NASCAR equivalent. (Again I say, don’t think about it too hard, or suddenly it all becomes a bit racist.)
At the first event, held in Tokyo, Mater embarrasses McQueen utterly and ends up in possession of some secret documents (hidden on him by the distinctive voice of Bruce Campbell). He makes the acquaintance of fetching British agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), and he is soon an unwitting foil in her and McMissile’s search for the mastermind of whatever evil plot is afoot. It’s weird: everyone knows something bad is about to go down, but no one really knows what will happen if it does.
Well, except us. We know that a mysterious villain has ordered that the racers in the International Grand Prix be randomly disabled using an electromagnetic pulse, thereby casting aspersions on the safety of the alternative biofuel that all cars in the race are required to use, being heavily promoted by Richard Branson-like businessman Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). As an aside, I don’t think the people who made this movie know quite how the British nobility works; he should thence be properly known as Sir Miles, not Sir Axelrod. But anyway.
Throughout a whole lot of backroom dealings and savvy spycraft and Mater being… well, Mater, the sinister figure behind the plot is at last uncovered. It’s a pretty standard Scooby-Doo ending, but none the less satisfying for all of that.
Meanwhile, the visuals are stunning.
Pixar has always been at the forefront of computer graphic technology, and in Cars 2 they really gave it their all, and it still holds up, six years later. The inherent futurism of Japan is well-suited to animation, of course, and both Paris and London are rendered beautifully. But Italy! The sea, the sky, the cobbled streets and even the quality of the light… it is all absolutely breathtaking as a piece of art, and this movie is worth it just for that sequence alone.
Now, I can understand why it would leave some viewers cold after the sweet redemption story of the original. Cars 2 is certainly a much bigger film, in both the scope of the plot and the arena in which it plays out. The original took place largely within a small town and on a large racetrack. Here, we are taken all around the world, given spy shenanigans in exotic foreign locales, and treated to a far greater variety of vehicular sentience than we’d yet experienced. We see barges, construction equipment, jetplanes, trains… seriously, who is MAKING all of these things? Who laid the train tracks? And if you were, say, a massive bulldozer with sharp teeth and an unstoppable weight of motion behind you… wouldn’t you expect to be part of the master race, and not just toiling away for the benefit of much smaller vehicles?
No. Still not thinking about it. (But why geisha cars? With parasols? WHY?)
One of the main complaints I have seen leveled at this film is that it gives Mater too much to do. Indeed, there is a lot of Mater hating among Pixar-philes, and on both sides of the political correctness divide. Some believe he is a horrendous stereotype of a southern hick and is played for cheap laughs, the animated equivalent of those uncomfortable scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s where Mickey Rooney plays Holly Golightly’s pan-Asian landlord, to cringe-inducing effect.
Now, I am not an American southerner, and if people who identify as such do indeed find this character offensive, then I will certainly take their word for it. History will surely judge this film harshly, if that is the case, as it has done with Tiffany‘s. (Screenings are frequently protested and boycotted due to its racial insensitivity.) But frankly, that is a minority opinion. The reason most people seem to dislike Mater as the film’s hero is because he is a southern hick, not because he is a demeaning stereotype of one.
And that is important too.
There is something very valuable in the idea that an average joe — though, admittedly, an average joe who’s best friend is a famous racecar — can make a difference in this world, no matter what he looks like, or sounds like, or the level of his education, or his connections, or even his intellect. Mater is thrown, quite accidentally, into the line of fire, but emerges a hero because he has heart. And yes, this is a common theme among films of every age range and genre. But it is rare indeed to see it played out in a) an accent that is all-too-often associated with the declassé; b) by a blue-collar worker c) by someone who is no Hollywood-ized oil painting and d) a citizen so senior as to be rusted almost all the way through and missing several key body parts.
So, we have an important message, a non-typical hero, gorgeous visuals and — though I haven’t mentioned this part yet — some genuinely snappy dialogue that will raise a smile from child and adult alike. (Some, more from the adult, it must be admitted.)
So, not only is Cars 2 not that travesty everyone has been claiming for so long, it is actually a really solidly entertaining movie and definitely worthy of your family’s — or simply your grown-up; no judgment here — time.
Even if you do really have to stop yourself from thinking about it too much.
Cars 3 hits theaters today, Friday June 16, 2017
Cars 2 | 2011
Animated Fantasy (Dystopia?) | G | 146 minutes
Story by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman
Written by Ben Queen | Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
Starring Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Eddie Izzard, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Campbell