Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are driving to the multiplex to see. This week they get low mileage in John Lasseter and Brad Lewis’ Cars 2.
Ben, I think Pixar’s recent strategy has been to expand its audience by making movies for and about the new demographics that they wish to attract. Cartoons, especially well-made ones, will always draw kids and parents, but Up got grandparents to the theater, too; Toy Story 3 brought the young-adult millenials (older cousins? siblings?) who had been children themselves back in 1995. But the Cars franchise? It’s for kids only; whatever the studio stands to lose in potential ticket sales it makes up for in merchandising. It’s basically a toy commercial, just like Transformers.
Ben, did you know that six months after the release of the first movie, Disney had already made $1 billion in retail sales? And that, by now, the property has raked in ten times that, in toys and other crap? I think that explains how puerile the movie is, from its introduction to the cliches from daddy’s action movies to its pat themes about friendship. Did Cars 2 feel like kiddie entertainment to you?
Well, Henry, in terms of its treatment of romance, friendship, cultural differences both domestic and international, and its general insensitivity to pretty much anything remotely adult—the first scene features an evil group’s oil rig exploding, for chrissakes—yes, I’d have to agree with you. But there was one area in which Cars 2 struck me as being less overly kid-friendly. Presumably owing to the fact that this is basically a mashup of James Bond and mafia movie tropes with (celibate) cars substituted for humans, literally tons of characters are killed in explosions that send their tires flying like dismembered limbs and set their hoods ablaze; one is tortured until he basically boils to death; another is shown squished and scrunched into a grisly, cubed corpse; minions are repeatedly ordered to “kill” other cars rather than, like, demolish them or cut their brakes or whatever a more automobile-appropriate version of killing would be. Cars 2 shows all kinds of luridly violent murders, and quite a bit of drinking, that if performed by actual human actors would make it basically The Hangover 3. I’m not saying kids can’t deal with this type of content or shouldn’t be exposed to it, but it would be infinitely better that they encounter it in less noxious circumstances. Which of Cars 2‘s attempts to engage current-events topicality did you find most offensive, Henry?
Well, I didn’t like when one of the movie’s English spies converts London’s red-light cameras into spy cameras, and is told that it makes her “not only pretty, but smart.” How about apathetic to basic civil rights? (Fucking Brits!) I was also troubled by the way the movie dealt with alternative energy. So, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) spends the movie engaging in a series of races in which the cars use Allinol, a no-emissions fuel, to prove the innovation’s efficacy, right? I wasn’t bothered by the movie’s cynical position that would-be do-gooders are really untrustworthy stooges of Big Oil—which reminded me of Moon!—because I buy its larger environmentalist posture; it’s consistent with past Pixar work like Wall-E. But it also seemed like saving the environment was just a means to the end of saving the automobile, that Mother Earth was less important than building a sustainable future for drag racing—which, it’s just part of the movie’s pervasive car fetish. Maybe it’s not a criticism of the movie so much as a personal prejudice, but as a city dweller without a driver’s license—whose relationship with cars doesn’t extend much beyond the annual taxi ride—I can’t really relate to Cars 2‘s (or Cars 1‘s) love of motor vehicles, its jokes about fenders, its focus on car races and car chases, which together must literally occupy about 65 percent of the movie. Its NASCARphilia, Ben. These movies like red-blooded American things: cars, planes, high-speed trains, action movies, sports commentary. And, you know, I prefer things like arugula, and gay marriage.
Henry, before I take up what I assume is your allusion to the very homosocial (er, “automosocial”?) relationship between McQueen and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), let me point out that high-speed trains are thus far, unfortunately, very un-American (remember, it’s the British spies who mobilize the talking TGV). Meanwhile, Cars 2‘s central relationship between Mater and McQueen has all the elements of a classic screen bromance: McQueen is fussy, irritable and glamorous, Mater (whose name is “mater,” as in one who mates) an easy-going, pleasure-driven simpleton. As if the pair’s complex tire-bumping “handshake” wasn’t sufficiently sexually suggestive, every time Mater hooked up his tow line to McQueen’s bumper I got the distinct impression we were watching a loving car couple’s casual sexual exchange. (Of course, if you factor in all the cars that Mater tows throughout Cars 2, he starts to look like a bit of a sex addict.) “Straight” romantic interests for both lead cars—in as much as a vehicle can be considered straight, queer, or otherwise sexually oriented or gendered, which is to say not much—are comparatively lukewarm, with none of the hard-won affection of the Mater-McQueen mating. But as you point out, such a fundamentally conservative, NASCAR Dad-courting car movie couldn’t possibly feature a same-sex-coded leading couple, could it?
Well, Ben, it might be able to, because I don’t know that the movie is fundamentally conservative: despite its heartland tastes, which are politically neutral, it boasts a lefty social conscience in addition to its conservative ideas about the individual. As in a lot of Pixar’s work, the movie is rife with Randian sympathies. The enemies here turn out to be the obsolete, the not-so special, yearning to tear down the gifted and restore the hegemony of oil and, with it, the dysfunctional past. Those gas-guzzling lemons reminded me of the bad guy in The Incredibles, Syndrome, who wants to make everyone special so that no one is. I also thought about Ratatouille‘s faux-populism: its main message, that “anyone can cook,” doesn’t mean that we can all literally be great chefs—Linguini can’t, he can just be a great roller-skatin’ waiter—but that great chefs can come from any class. These Objectivist leanings have long made me uneasy about Pixar, but I suppose it could be expected from a studio with an unparalleled ability to create hits, and a staff of exceptional animators and storytellers. Of course they believe in the supremacy of the gifted! Did anything here make you uncomfortable, Ben?
You mean aside from Cars 2‘s oily car-on-car killings and apparently compulsive need to dispel any hints of queerness with tacked-on female characters? How about its muddled fuel-as-drugs analogies, Henry? The “lemons,” a consortium of history’s most poorly manufactured cars, are part mafia family, part drug cartel. They’re addicted to oil not only for economic reasons, but because they rely on their own supply to get high. McQueen and Mater’s Southwestern hometown only reinforces this Mexican drug war reading, in which oil stands in for hard drugs coming across the border. But then who saves the day? (Spoiler.) The stoned stoner van Fillmore! (Formerly voiced by George Carlin, now by Lloyd Sherr.) Maybe there’s something progressive going on here, after all! The British (Petroleum) alternative fuel turns out to be fake and deadly, its creator evil, but the American hippie van has developed a viable plant-based fuel. If that’s not a coded argument for a legal domestic pot industry, I don’t know what is.