What child can understand losing professional colleagues after a long career?
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Cars 3]
Cars 3 is par for the course for Pixar, in the sense that it talks past child viewers in order to speak to life experiences and complex emotions that the creators of inferior animated movies simply do not have the consideration or ingenuity to address. Movies like Up, Toy Story 3, and Inside Outdo not, in that sense, consider the lives that child viewers actually lead. In these films, child viewers are encouraged to appreciate a world that they will soon grow into. There is, in other words, an adult quality to these stories even if they are essentially children’s stories at hearts.
With that in mind: what are kids supposed to make of Cars 3, a well-meaning but misconceived sports/action-comedy that concludes that passing the baton, and gracefully sharing a stage with young up-and-comers is just as satisfying as enjoying your day in the sun? What children see themselves in talking race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), an amiable has-been who is now forced to consider retirement? Can children relate, beyond a basic “sharing is caring” take-away, to a story about an aging professional who has to make room for younger competitors? Why, in other words, is an anthropomorphized car teaching kids that someday, they too will have to find satisfaction in doing something other than what they love? Is the target audience for Cars 3 really that old at heart?
McQueen is, for much of Cars 3, a sympathetic hot-head. He grumbles and mutters his way through various encounters that remind him that he isn’t the fastest professional race car on the track anymore. He’s been eclipsed by up-and-comer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a new model that was built and trained to go faster. Storm is Ivan Drago to McQueen’s Rocky, a dynamic that child viewers are made to understand thanks to Jackson’s insensitive behavior. He’s callous while McQueen is soft-spoken, and neurotically obsessed with going back to his roots, getting into the zone, and psyching out his competitors (though always in a friendly way).
Here’s where a kid viewer probably can’t relate to McQueen’s story: Jackson is so good that he McQueen watches helplessly as his colleagues are all essentially forced into retirement. They can’t compete with this young, disrespectful whipper-snapper, and therefore almost all leave the sport they love so much. Kids are made to sympathize with Lightning McQueen’s complex emotions in one scene where he looks for a friend in his assigned garage.But when he approaches his friend’s parking space, McQueen finds that it’s occupied by a faster, new car … Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
This scene reveals the film’s weird adults-centric perspective. McQueen’s situation is boiled down to something like “You look for a friend, but can’t find any.” Again, that’s a micro-level approach that has served the makers of Pixar films well for years now. Superior films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Wall-E all deal with icky emotions that kids must deal with, like fears of mortality, abandonment, and self-fashioning. But in Cars 3, kids are asked to relate to a scenario that is simply not within the realm of their experience. After all, what child could possibly know what it’s like to lose professional colleagues/friends after a long career of working together? And why are kids supposed to learn this particular life lesson now?
Lightning McQueen’s situation is implicitly juxtaposed with a more child-friendly short film called “Lou,” a cartoon that precedes every Cars 3 screening. In that short film, a sentient collection of lost-and-found toys teaches a bully the joy of giving rather than receiving. In other words: the bully in question, at the end of the short, stops stealing kids’ toys, and starts distributing them because the act of sharing makes him happy. This is a cute, albeit simplistic, moral tale, one that kids will probably find a little more comprehensible.
It’s also a means for child viewers to better understand McQueen’s story. He, by film’s end, will also learn to find joy in mentoring Cruz Ramirez, a flashy new model who trains McQueen, and eventually surpasses him despite her lack of practical experience. Ramirez, a professional trainer, is not considered a real racer until the end, not until McQueen sees the error of his way, and makes way for her, employing some of her own new-wave psychological techniques to get her over her fears of inadequacy. But for the first half of Cars 3, Ramirez is just a well-meaning roadblock, and sometimes ditz. She talks down to McQueen, and constantly makes him feel old. This is also telling: McQueen is not a child-like older man, but rather an older man who is, at heart, feeling his age.
Still: how is a kid supposed to relate to the idea that sharing the spotlight with a worthy friend — someone who becomes humanized over time — at a stage when they themselves should be developing a sense of self? Inclusivity is always a commendable quality, and should be cherished. But is the best way to broach this subject a movie where cars with undelineated capped teeth drive really fast? Do kids really need to worry about passing the baton at a point where they should be receiving said baton?
Why, is Cars 3 a story about Lightning McQueen’s problems, and not Cruz’s attempts at finding her way into a society that sees her as a threat? Why can’t Lightning McQueen’s time in the sun be a tangential concern rather than the story’s main focus? That kind of story would be a more fitting acknowledgment of how McQueen struggled to find acceptance as he filled the shoes of his own competitor-turned-mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) in the first Cars.