The Cars Franchise Is This Generation’s Star Wars
June 26, 2011 1 Comment
Everyone knows that Cars was the least-critically-adored Pixar movie. It’s the movie that critics feel safe beating up on in order not to seem like slavish Pixar devotees for lavishing so much drool on the Toy Storys, Wall-E and even Up. I’m not sure I’m even an astute enough movie watcher to know whether the critiques are deserved (yes, I recognize that the basic story was more or less Doc Hollywood warmed-over, but so?), so I can’t necessarily rebut the critics. I just know that for whatever reason – too NASCAR-oriented for SWPLs? – it’s clear that Cars doesn’t have the Gen-X-approved Pixar cred of their other films.
But I can only assume most of those critics don’t actually have small children. As I’ve tried to explain privately in emails to some fraction of my 2.3 readers, to small children, Cars was a world-changer.
In fact I get the feeling that it is the closest thing to this generation’s Star Wars. What the Star Wars franchise was to roughly anyone (or at least, any boy) who was between roughly 4-8 years old when one of the original three came out, Cars will be remembered the same way by today’s 4-8 years olds. Not Harry Potter, and not even Toy Story. Which, don’t get me wrong. The Toy Story movies are great. I sincerely still maintain that Toy Story 3 ought to have been last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. My personal favorite Pixar movie, and maybe one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time, is The Incredibles. But to the little kids of today, these just don’t seem to rival Cars in the imagination. Here are some of the reasons why.
1. Self-contained universe. Of course, all the above mentioned movies/series have a well-fleshed-out, self-contained universe, as this is important for any kiddie fantasy. A simple yet rich world with good guys and bad guys, with rules of its own, that seems large and endless, yet which isn’t complicated by boring/confusing real adult world stuff, so that it can be easily studied and ‘debated’ in and of itself by kids. Jedi vs. Sith, Gryffindor vs. Slytherin, Rust-eeze vs. Dinoco. Darth Vader, Voldemort, Thunder. Other series may do it ‘better’, but Cars does have a universe that feels as if it’s large and fleshed-out, yet understandable, and can hold as many stories as needed. What this does is give kids a large but manageable list of facts about the world to memorize and feel good about memorizing. Adult Cars-watchers may not have remembered that the roadside hotel (with orange-cone-shaped rooms) in Radiation Springs is called the Kozy Kone Motel, for example, but kid repeat-DVD-viewers definitely do.
2. A rich list of colorful but mostly blank-slate character types. The Toy Story series has basically two interesting characters (Woody the good guy, and Buzz the confused spaceman who embraces his newly-discovered toyhood), and a huge supporting cast that is entertaining but – like many of their jokes – is probably more interesting to adults than to kids. Kids have no emotional connection to Mr. Potato-Head, for example; kids today probably don’t even know that Mr. Potato-Head wasn’t just made up for the Toy Story series like Woody and Buzz were. But Cars came fully decked out with about a dozen instantly-recognizable stereotype characters that easily slide into kids’ imaginations, even the relatively small characters in the movie (the Sheriff, Ramon) that loom disproportionately large to the kids who were paying attention.
3. Action figures/craven marketing. Of course Cars – like Star Wars – was a genius idea simply for the marketing potential. At its most calculated level it’s basically a movie-length CGI commercial for endlessly-sellable lines of little made-up car toys that can cost $9.99 a pop or more. Combine this with fact #2 (all the different stereotype characters) and you have a potent force for making the franchise loom larger in kids’ imaginations than anyone seems to realize.
Add it all up and you get the fascinating spectacle of a four year old coveting his friend’s “Dinoco Thunder” toy, which as far as I can tell is just a different-painted version of the side villain-character “Thunder” – a version which, as far as I recall, didn’t actually appear in the movie except by implication (since, having won the final race, and Lightning McQueen having turned it down, Thunder would have presumably been offered the Dinoco oil company advertisement contract? I guess). Not that the four-year-old really understands much of that, except in broad outline – but he wants it. It is as absurd, yet as meaningful, as the fact that Star Wars kids could long for a stupid “IG-88″ or “Hammerhead” action figure on the basis of like 3 seconds of screen time, or needed to have both the classic and the “snowsuit” Han Solo, or became so illogically fascinated with the side character Boba Fett (who essentially doesn’t speak and barely does anything, certainly reveals no character).
Critics are now mostly – Roger Ebert being an unexpected exception – in the process of giving Cars 2 a righteous drubbing, and I expected nothing less. It will kill at the box office. It has also, like Empire Strikes Back, surpassed the first film both in scope and in number of characters, settings, and emotions. I enjoyed it a lot. But more to the point, I think I’d rather ride the wave than try to fight it. Lightning McQueen is now Luke Skywalker for these people, and one needs to respect that.