Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cars 3 Offers Ethical Dilemmas and Faux-Feminism

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I’m a thirty-seven-year-old man with little to no interest or knowledge about cars. I did not wile away hours of my youth playing with toy cars. I did have a miniature A-Team van, but that was mainly a projectile for my Lou Ferrigno Hulk action figure. I’m not a gearhead, but I have been known to love a good car chase movie from time to time.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I am so not the audience for Cars 3. As the credits rolled at the end, there was applause and whoops of joy. It is safe to say the target audience was entertained.

Speaking for myself though, I was not. I was bored but not angry bored. I was pleasantly bored. Although, I know this is a kids movie, but are kids really that interested in middle-aged malaise and male obsolescence?

Also how the hell does the universe in Cars 3 even work? What’s the internal logic here? This my first Cars movie and maybe I’m overthinking it but what the hell? Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has a girlfriend, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). Wait, what? So not only are cars sentient, they have genders, and are capable of emotions as complex up to and including love?

You know you’re too old for a movie when you start asking yourself if cars have souls. This is not an absurd question though. Cars 3 is almost completely about Lightning McQueen and his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) dealing with insecurity, failed dreams, and a search for spiritual fulfillment.

I was wholly uninterested in so much of Cars 3. I didn’t care about Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) or how he was the newer, better, shinier version of McQueen. Nor did I care about McQueen’s feeling of impotence when he was unable to beat Jackson or any of the other newer shinier cars.

When McQueen would dig deep down into his mechanical psyche to remember the words of his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) I was troubled. Troubled by the fact that Paul Newman’s been dead for ten years so what sorcery is this nonsense? After some researching, I discovered John Lassiter and Paul Newman recorded some conversations they had about cars. Those tapes were used for Cars 3.

Hollywood we have to have a talk. I was troubled with the whole Peter Cushing resurrection ordeal for Rogue One, and this only deepens the ethical quagmire. At what point do we stop using actors after they’re dead? Which shouldn’t be a question I’m asking while watching a kids movie filled with talking sentient psychologically complex cars!

I may have allowed my mind to wander down some esoteric alleys of abstract thought. To be fair, that’s only because Cars 3 is so meandering you can’t help but meander along without it. There’s no drive to the story.

At one point McQueen seizes on the idea that what he needs to beat Storm is to talk to the man who mentored his mentor. So he and Ramirez travel to someplace, I don’t remember what it’s called, to find Doc Hudson’s mentor Smokey (Chris Cooper). I mention this because it’s here we meet Louise Nash (Margo Martindale). I spent the rest of the movie silently cursing Cars 3 for teasing me with the national treasure that is Margo Martindale and doing nothing with her.

In the midst of all this toy selling and universe implications that seem sprung from some hallucinatory nightmare is a misbegotten attempt at feminism. Cruz Ramirez, McQueen’s trainer, is brash, cocky, and just darn sweet when she’s inside her training complex. But outside she’s useless.

Cars 3 then gamely attempts to show us Ramirez learning from McQueen and eventually even outpacing him. McQueen’s fragile ego is shattered, and so he takes it out on Ramirez by calling her just ‘a trainer.’ She’s not ‘a racer’ like he is. We learn that Ramirez used to want to be a racer, that she trained for it relentlessly, but chickened out on the day of.

When the climax of the movie happens and McQueen, for the umpteenth time, fails to beat Storm, he convinces Ramirez to substitute for him. It turns out McQueen has realized, now that he has literally no choice, that she can help him beat Storm. She’s a racer after all.

To reiterate and sum up. A woman trained for something and then didn’t even try because she didn’t feel confident, but ultimately was given a chance to achieve her dream once the man said she could, and he only did that because he couldn’t do it himself.

I must admit at the time I watched it I thought it was actually feminist.  Then I talked to a few women, not cars, actual women. I don’t think the director and co-writer Brian Fee, or his other writers actually realized what they were saying. I just think it was a bunch of men thinking they had this feminist thing in the bag.

But all this just brings us back to the question: Do cars have souls? More importantly, does Cars 3 have a soul? Let’s be honest; this is less a kids movie and more a cynical ploy to sell cars.

Yet, bored as I was, I found myself kind of actually getting a warm fuzzy feeling towards the end.  Cynical as Cars 3 very existence may be, as truly baffling as its universe must be, on some base level, it works.

I can’t explain it. For most of the movie, I had mentally checked out but damn it all if I didn’t feel a little bit happy for Ramirez. Even with a shallow dumpster fire of a franchise like Cars, Pixar is still the best game in town.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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