I wanted to object loudly to the woman changing her toddler’s nappy in the aisle of the cinema as I was watching Cars 3 with my 12 year old.. and I should have, except, well it wasn’t a full nappy thankfully, so I decided to go with my feminist sensibilities with a Gee, I know what it’s like to have young kids tact, and besides, the cinema was virtually empty. As I got quickly drawn into the film those same sensibilities were definitely not disappointed.
Yes, Cars 3 delivers; Lightning McQueen, Mater, Sally, racing, speed, excitement, but as soon as you’re past the adrenaline rush of the racing opening scene where we meet McQueen’s new rival Jackson Storm, we realize there’s a lot more to this story than just winning (wasn’t there always)?
This is a story about what it’s like to stand on the plateau of success and look down into the valley of retirement, of slowing down, of relinquishing the role of champion with grace & integrity, and without disappointment. Big themes for a kid’s animation, but hey, as Sally said in Cars 1 to Lightning’s comment “It’s just a Road“, no! “It’s a lot more than that“….
So we spend the first half of this film watching McQueen face up to his demons, observing him in the autumn of his career, and it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of work and effort to get him back into winning position, and winning is what he’ll do right? We’ll see him fail, get cocky, then get frustrated, go through some meaningful memory of Doc Hudson and what that all means, have some confrontation with his enemy who humiliates him then get the ‘feminine’ reasoning of Sally stepping in for support, reminding him of what he’s made of, that he too was once nothing, and he can do it, and then there’ll be a dark moment of nerves before the race where she’s given up on him and then…wait, no, Cars 3 doesn’t go like that at all.
One of the great things about Cars is the attention to detail. Cars 1 was so beautifully observed. I feel like I’ve been to Radiator Springs and hung out with all those fully fleshed-out characters. I’ve felt their hopes, their excitement, their disappointments, I know their history. So Cars 3 has a clever balance of maintaining those characters, in albeit more background roles, and introducing a few new characters to give it a new storyline and freshness.
This is where it gets interesting. During the first half we watch McQueen almost ‘suffer’ his new trainer, a young female tough cookie Cruz Ramirez, who believes training indoors on state of the art simulators is the way to go. McQueen doesn’t take her seriously until they get out of the training centre and into the wild. This classic ‘Into the Woods’ narrative device is thoroughly enjoyable, as once we get out there we feel we’re now on a spiritual journey too. McQueen is frustrated with Cruz at first and her lack of ability on real turf, and he seems to be training her, rather than she him. It’s only when they find themselves in a local out-back Demolition Derby bash ’em up night that they are both truly tested, and realize they can help each other. Shortly after we learn that Cruz herself had dreams of being a race car, a champion, but that dream was never possible for her because she’d never been taken seriously in a man’s world.
What the narrative of Cars 3 does is carefully weave together the idea that McQueen himself remembers what it was like to be Cruz, to be young and talented and eager, but he now has age and experience on his shoulders, and the voices of friends gone aka Doc Hudson, in his head. It’s through the beautifully-drawn character Smokey, Doc Hudson’s ex-trainer, that we learn that Doc had not given up the desire to race so easily, and had indeed re-lived it everyday through watching McQueen, a hint at what’s in store for McQueen himself and Cruz. It’s in the denouement of the film, when we believe that McQueen can win and will win, that he shows his real winning colours, but not through speed or skill. No, it’s through what he’s learnt emotionally. We learn that winning and success only really comes with wisdom, with humility. I don’t need to tell you why it’s a feminist film, you’ve probably guessed by now. It’s also just incredibly satisfying and sophisticated and complete.
It’s taken what was already a well-observed and sophisticated world and expanded on the existing characters and their history. By digging deeper, it’s provided more insight and surprises where we didn’t expect them. Age can bring wisdom, and satisfaction in giving away what we’ve learnt. And yes kids, there are some great race scenes and some funny slap-stick moments too. I hope the toddler with the clean nappy appreciated them.
©Sarah King 04/08/17