Some movies in your life represent markers of time. For me, the first movie in my life to have represented a major marker would have been Snow White. Being two years old, I cannot say what I did remember and did not remember from my movie-going experience. But I do know that my parents have oft repeated the story of “the lady fell down on the rock.” Evidently, that was my catchphrase after watching Snow White. No doubt, the ending scene was a bit traumatic for the eyes of a two-year-old. I immediately recognized (as much as any two-year-old can) movies change lives. Not only was the experience impactful, but my life would change dramatically as my family would add a new member to its ranks. One who would not be able to sit still through a movie very well. We added my baby brother.
My baby brother would change my life dramatically in all sorts of ways, aside from limiting my ability to watch movies at the movie theater. I would be in elementary school before I would be able to watch a movie on the big screen again. And for those of you who are millennial or younger out there, this was before VCR’s became mainstream. (I know, for some, you are staring at your computer screen and saying, “what’s a VCR?” To those of you who thought that I have no words. I really have no words.) So that meant watching TV before streaming, before the internet, and before cable became all that popular. There was only Sesame Street before Elmo. Wait. Maybe that was a good thing. But I digress. One can imagine that when I made it back into the movie theater I would be greatly appreciative. And I was.
But aside from the occasional Disney animated re-release, there was not much my parents would allow us to see at the movie theaters. So when I was finally able to go see Superman 2 on the big screen, it was a big occasion for me. It marked a growing up of sorts. I was able to see a PG rated film. (Someday I will have a whole rant about my upbringing and PG films, but not today.) It was a story of superheroes and villains. It was powerful people fighting powerful people. And it was about a man trying to relate to his father, who was absent. I loved it.
Movies became such a large part of my life. In them, I looked for lessons about love, forgiveness, mercy, friendship, and life. They moved me in such meaningful ways that transcended the individual films themselves. And the more powerful movies have been able to touch me in different ways at different times. I absolutely adore cinema.
So when I had a daughter, it was important to pass on this love of cinema to her. I know as parents there are a few things that are meaningful to us that we really want to communicate to our children. And my love of cinema was something I wanted to communicate to my daughter.
All of this lead in is to tell you about the new Cars movie and it’s importance, but to understand fully, I have to take a look back at the original Cars movie and see the connections in my life. To see the beauty, one has to understand what went before. Because it’s there that the movie takes on a different significance.
2006 was a rough year for my family. On the one hand, we had the bright spot of my daughter being born. On the other hand, life complicated matters in so many other ways. First, my ex’s depression became so debilitating that she was unable to handle life’s situations and she ended up on state disability. Next, my brother-in-law and family came to live with us because my brother-in-law was severely sick with cancer and we didn’t want him to spend what little time he had left in a hospital. Shortly after that, my daughter was born, and a month after that, my brother in law passed away. It was truly a chaotic six months. And out lives would never be the same.
Ironically, Cars came out two weeks after the death of my brother-in-law. And we were looking for something or anything that could get us to keep our minds off of what was going on. Of course bringing a one-month-old in tow to the movie theater was not exactly something we could do easily. But our daughter seemed to handle the movie theater noise at an early age, barely even registering a sound.
Here was the tale of a young Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), brash and pompous, thrust into small town life after he destroyed a town through his thoughtlessness. In town, he meets a bevy of interesting characters. Ramon (Cheech Marin), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and Luigi (Tony Shaloub) among others. But the benefactor of the town is one Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). Hudson initially sees Lightning as a bad influence on the town, raising expectations when there isn’t any. But eventually, Hudson sees Lightning as the son he never had.
And Lightning gets some things he desperately needs. First, he gets a father figure and mentor in Doc. He gets a group of friends in all of the townspeople. And ultimately he makes a best friend in Mater. These were all people who loved him for who he was and not what he could do. That means the most to anyone. Ultimately, Lightning realizes that winning means very little in the large scheme of things. Life is about the personal relationships you have and how those make life truly meaningful.
We were struggling in our family and it spoke to the very heart of what it meant to be part of a family. You don’t always agree, but you always have the other person’s back. Every family has different roles. But each of those roles is essential in the family dynamic. When you are missing one of the parts, the family feels broken. Even the perennial goofball Mater has a necessary function.
Given that Mater was an essential cog in a beautiful film about family and the nature of family when considering how to make a sequel to the original film, the people at Pixar decided that he could be the centerpiece of the new story. So in July of 2011, they released Cars 2 to a mixed critical reception at best. It was an unfortunate first flop by the Pixar company. (Now whether you consider $191 million domestically a flop is something you could debate. But it certainly underperformed based upon Pixar’s high standards.)
The problem from my perspective was the emphasis on Mater as the key to everything. Cars was an ensemble picture. Cars 2 was a buddy movie. And trying to make it a buddy picture robbed the movie of its heart. Mater transformed from the car full of heart that people loved despite his foibles to the goofball who no one trusted. And whether the lack of trust was really about the other cars or not, every moment the picture fed into the notion that a goofball, even a loveable one, is just a useful idiot. No more. No less.
Cars 2 also came along at a time of extreme difficulty in my family. We had just moved to Costa Mesa. Supposedly it was in the hopes of resuscitating our families fortunes as well as our relationships. Unfortunately, it became apparent pretty quickly that our family was dying from the inside. Seeing a picture that had lost some of the heart and focused on many of a family’s problems didn’t particularly sit too well. This disappointed me.
So when I heard that they were releasing another Cars picture (after Cars 2 and the similarly disregarded Planes movie) my big question was “why?” Why would they need to make another picture? Cars was cute, but I felt like it had lost its mojo. This didn’t mean that Pixar wasn’t capable of making a trilogy where the third movie held up as well as the first two. (How many of you were not in tears when Andy gave back his toys at the end of Toy Story 3? And for those of you who insist you weren’t, all I can say is, “liar!!!”) Pixar comes as close to movie gold as any film company that exists today. And they are as good about communicating heart and love to an audience with just pictures as any company in existence. (Can we say . . . Up?)
So when it came out, I decided that I would give Cars 3 an honest look. So on Friday evening, my daughter and I went the full hog at a movie theater. This meant watching a 3D Movie with reclining chairs and a full-service menu for food. It was the ultimate dinner and a movie, AMC style. The following was my experience.
Cars 3 Review
Once again we have entered into the Piston Cup racing circuit. Lightning McQueen faces off against his fellow competitors, sometimes losing, but mostly winning his way to fame and glory. So when another season of the Piston Cup comes around again, there is no reason to expect anything different. Until Lightning loses. Jackson Storm, a new hotshot competitor, races from the back of the pack and beats Lightning as well as all of this other cohorts on the track. It’s not that Lightning never gets beaten. It’s the way he beats up on them, and the fact that he appears to be something altogether different.
Unlike the past competitors, Jackson storm appears to be entirely new. He has a new look. He trains differently. And his top speed far outpaces any of the older crew. This does start to get underneath Lightning’s skin (if a car could have skin) and makes him think about what he is going to do. He ends up getting careless on the track, leaving him in what the “Cars” world would be traction. He has to be remade, with a brand new paint job. And he has to go back to physical therapy to be able to get back on the track.
But physical therapy turns into something very different than what Lightning expects. Things change. And so the world around Lightning changes. His sponsorship team can no longer afford to give Lightning what he needs if he wants to be competitive. So they sell out to an entirely new billionaire by the name of Sterling (Nathan Fillion). And as everyone knows, all that glitters is not gold. And what appears to be a grand new adventure with this new sponsor goes wrong very quickly. It could be Lightning’s impatience. Or he could be set up to fail. Either way, things are very wrong.
So he makes a wager. If Lightning can win the next race, he will be able to go out on his terms. But if he loses, he will bow out and sell auto parts til the end of his days. Sterling agrees, provided that he keeps a nanny with him to look after him. This nanny goes by the name of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). She is the equivalent of a gym instructor sent to babysit Lightning back to health or into an early retirement. It is not clear which.
Of course, Cruz never had the opportunity to race. She doesn’t understand what the cars go through. She has never experienced the thrill of victory or the pain of defeat. Ultimately, she seems to only be slowing Lightning down. However, as I said before, all that glitters is not gold, but sometimes you can find a diamond in the rough. I don’t, however, want to spoil any of the hi-jinks that ensue so I will be leaving you here so that you can watch the rest of the movie and enjoy it without my commentary running through your head.
**End of Spoilers**
What did I think of the movie? Would I recommend watching it or waiting til video on some late afternoon where you can pass out while your kids are enthralled by the cars? I would definitely say that you should watch it, preferably on the big screen. Cars 3 vastly improves on the performance of Cars 2.
Why do I think it is worth a watch? First, the people at Pixar recognized what they did wrong with the Cars 2 movie. By focusing on Mater they robbed the picture of its heart. Because the heart of the original wasn’t the relationship between Lightning and Mater. The heart of the original was about the relationship between Lightning and Doc Hudson. Doc saw so much of himself in Lightning that he feared what he would do to the town. But then Doc realized how much Lightning could do for the town, and how much the town was doing for Lightning.
So Doc stepped in to be the father figure that Lightning needed. That was the heart of the original. So when Pixar put together this third installment, they made sure to add sequences with Doc that brought that echoed the emotions of the first movie. And what’s even better is that they had enough sound footage with Paul Newman that they were able to add in extra scenes into the third feature that they didn’t get to use in the first one. That feeling echoes throughout the picture.
Furthermore, the picture got to focus back on the issue of what it means to be a family. He had the family from the first picture that would back him up 100 percent. But this family was added to. It now includes Cruz, Smokey (Chris Cooper), Dusty (Ray Magliozzi), and Rusty (Tom Magliozzi). Family can be a beautiful thing. But it’s also an organic thing that grows and develops through time. This feeling resonates throughout the picture. It was missing in the second film. But they brought it back for this finale.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 4 Stars
Continue The Conversation
So how many of you are going to go out and see Cars? For those of you who have seen it, what did you think of it? For those of you who haven’t, what is holding you back? And what was your favorite part of the Cars franchise? I know that for me it’s definitely the relationships between Lightning and Doc. I guess father/son or even father/daughter relationships always move me in some ways. It probably moves me even more since becoming a father myself.
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Until next time, “Ca chow!”
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life