Cars 2 Isn’t a Lemon

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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.

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July 8, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North