There’s a largely discredited school of thought which suggests that watching movies can brainwash you into re-creating whatever it is you see on screen. Even though no respectable person buys into it, there’s always some politician willing to dredge up that “Hollywood is to blame” argument when some nut job rolls into a Luby’s with a sawed-off shotgun. In spite of this, most lovers of common sense agree that movies aren’t to blame when bad people run around doing bad things. We’re adults capable of controlling our own actions, most of us have figured out the difference between reality and fantasy by the time we’re ten.
Yet movies still have the ability to make us think or, in the case of younger viewers, teach. If you’re a fully grown human you have the strength of mind to go into a film and decide whether or not you agree with all the viewpoints you’ve just seen splashed up on screen. If you’re a little kid, you’re probably going to accept pretty much anything Lightning McQueen says as absolute truth. That’s a problem, because Lightning McQueen and Cars 2 have some pretty horrible things to say to your kids. Letting them sit through Pixar’s latest may leave you with a pint-sized terror who grows up to be some self-centered asshole flipping off the man while he runs down pedestrians in the middle of an intersection.
Where The Rubber Meets The Road The first Cars centered around Lightning McQueen and was, largely, an extended homage to the vanished mystique of Route 66 and the power of the American road. Cars 2 goes a completely different direction, making Mater the main character and turning him into a sort of accidental hero trapped in a spy movie. That makes sense. Kids identify with Mater more than any other Cars character. Now the character they love most, is involved in a plot that’s all crazy gadgets and cool spy stuff. Parents may not get as much out of it as they did from the first one, and your kids will probably outgrow Cars 2 by the time they turn 11, yet in the here and now they’re going to want at least three versions of Tow Mater the Super Spy for Christmas.
Over the course of his spy adventure, Mater does a lot of dumb things. Cars, especially dumb cars like Mater, make mistakes. That’s ok. Where the movie goes wrong is in its failure to characterize his screwups as mistakes, and in its subsequent determination to frame them as a laudable expression of his loud and proud personality. That could be good, told differently. Telling your kids that it’s ok to be yourself is a great message, it only becomes a problem when being yourself also hurts other people. Mater hurts a lot of other people.
Mater’s best friend Lightning takes him on an all expenses paid trip around the world and Mater rewards him by refusing to listen when his long-suffering buddy asks him to stop ruining his party. Instead of toning it down, Mater takes the whole humiliation thing up a notch higher by making himself and by extension his friend, a laughingstock. Later our rusty tow truck hero becomes so completely obsessed with his own affairs that he further damages Lightning McQueen’s career, his self-absorbed behavior causes the loss of a critical race. Along the way Tow Mater also destroys a lot of private property, sometimes in the name of the spy business (which is fine), but more often than not in the name of selfishly pleasing himself.
Pixar’s Super Sweet Sixteen These are not minor plot points in the film, they are in fact pivotal moments in the development of its story. They’re so pivotal that Cars 2 replays them more than once, the last time right before Mater and Lightning McQueen come together to make amends for all the things they’ve done to each other throughout the course of the film. Except, before Mater can really apologize for being a first-rate jackass to his pal, Lightning delivers a speech, seemingly directed at the audience more than Matter, in which he absolves him of everything. Lightning makes it clear that he knows Mater did all of those destructive things because that’s just who he is. Lightning tells Mater that he should always be himself, no matter what the consequences. He then caps off that declarative statement with a line which sounds like it must have been borrowed from a particularly crazed episode of Jerry Springer when he says, “and if other people don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
Somewhere in that mess is a really good idea. Kids are awkward and weird and out of place, and it would be great if someone stood up and told them that they don’t have to be ashamed of who they are, that it’s ok to be different. Maybe that’s what Cars 2 intended to say, but instead it says that your kids should do whatever they want, no matter who it hurts. It might have come out the right way if Mater hadn’t just spent an entire movie damaging the lives of other people, but he has. Sure in the process he also accomplishes a lot of good, yet in that specific moment he and McQueen are talking about the damage Mater has done to his friend, and the message that rings through loud and clear is this: It doesn’t matter who you hurt, just do what you want. I’m pretty sure this part of the movie was written by the cast of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen.
To Infinity And Beyond There was this kid I knew growing up. Let’s call him Buzz. These days he’s one of my favorite people in the world, but it wasn’t always that way. When Buzz was a little boy, he was a Mater. People couldn’t stand him. No one could control him. He was the kind of kid who’d kick the seat of the guy sitting in front of him, because he knew it was annoying. He’d break anything that caught his fancy, and then laugh when people got mad. He’d fling himself down on the floor kicking and screaming like some sort of hell-demon if you tried to dissuade him from wanton destruction, only to jump up and find something else equally annoying and destructive to do the second you gave up and turned your attention elsewhere.
Through years of persistence from the people who loved him, eventually Buzz got the message that it’s ok to be who you are, but not at the expense of other people or yourself. Buzz learned that sometimes you have to cover up your tattoos to get a job; that sometimes you have to stifle an impulse to mash down on the car’s accelerator because you might hurt someone. Once he figured that out, Buzz turned into one of the best people I know. But then Buzz didn’t have Lightning McQueen there to tell him that selfish self-expression is more important than concern for others, or for that matter your future. Buzz didn’t have Cars 2 there to tell him he’s a Mater, and throwing popcorn at the guy in front of you is OK because that’s what Maters do.
Don’t want your kid to turn into a Mater? Exercise caution when taking your children to Cars 2.
For more on Cars 2 read my full Cars 2 review.