A Cautionary Tale About American Idiocy
Remember the car-people of Cars, who are just like human beings except they’re cars? They’re back! And this time they’re going to Japan. Which is just like our Japan except all the people are cars. Also there are some stopovers in London and Paris, where — respectively — car-people sip drinks in pubs and car-people get smoochy near the Eiffel Tower. The car-people: they really are just like us!
Since there is nothing overtly satirical or even mildly amusing in turning people into cars and having them do peoply things in places we’re all familiar with (at least from pop culture, if not actual visits ourselves), I am forced to look for meaning deeper than comedy, for a reason for such a story to be told. This is a Pixar film, after all, from the creative geniuses renowned for taking animated storytelling to a level heretofore unexperienced by humanity. Pixar does not commit cinema for no reason.
Oh, they’re clever sneaky bastards, those Pixar folks. They are warning us right here with this Cars 2 movie that if we Americans don’t clean house, we’re going to bring the whole world down with us, and the entirety of human civilization will collapse into a nasty soup of irrationality and ignorance. Just like has happened in America.
Screenwriters Ben Queen, John Lasseter (Toy Story 3, Toy Story 2), Brad Lewis, and Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Bolt) take a clever two-pronged approach to their message, which begins on the surface of the tale. Hotshot driverless racecar Lightning McQueen (the voice of Owen Wilson: Little Fockers, How Do You Know) is off on an around-the-world adventure racing in the World Grand Prix, and along for the ride is his best friend, rusty tow truck Mater (the voice of Larry the Cable Guy; the casting alone is a cry of warning from Pixar, merely by highlighting the sad fact that they were able to cast a celebrity called Larry the Cable Guy). Mater is clearly intended to be read by us, the audience, as mentally retarded; one joke even has him overestimating his intelligence as “average,” which is so ludicrous as to be laughable. Mater is also obviously a portrait of ugly-Americanism in action: he is crude, loud, obnoxious, so unaware of the customs in foreign lands that he doesn’t even realize he’s unaware. He just assumes everything everywhere must be like it is back home in Radiator Springs, because why wouldn’t it be? The world is whatever is contained inside his tiny little car-brain, and nothing else.
Here’s the beginning of Pixar’s warning: Mater’s ignorant blundering about the planet is eventually seen as something wonderful and heroic by all he encounters, even those who should, by all rights, be horrified by him. Though it seems as if Mater is out to ruin Lightning’s life, never mind causing international incidents everywhere he goes, all will be made right in the end as everyone is won over why Mater’s (alleged) charm.
If this could happen, Pixar — led by Lasseter and Lewis as directors — asks us, could something worse happen? Mater’s ugly-Americanism may be “humorous,” but simmering below the surface of this story is the horrifying prospect of another kind of American idiocy taking hold around the world.
I speak of the American idiocy of “intelligent design.”
The universe of Cars 2 has been clearly and carefully constructed by the writers to be one in which — unlike our universe — the evidence for intelligent design is unequivocal. One major giveaway is that the car-people don’t have hands to make anything: not the buildings they live in, not the oil rigs they rely on for their food, not the uncarlike modifications a car-person such as British spy Finn McMissile (the voice of Michael Caine: Gnomeo & Juliet, Inception) uses in his line of work; Finn is practically a car-cyborg, and yet there is no one around who could have made him this way. One plot point turns on cars “made” with a certain kind of engine — “Made by whom?” is the unasked question that hangs dramatically in the air.
And we know the car-people must be aware of their strange, literally unnatural roots. One major player in the overt story here is Sir Miles Axlerod (the voice of Eddie Izzard: Valkyrie, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), whose alternative fuel is the MacGuffin around which the plot spins. With this, the Pixar creators wish us to know that the world of Cars does include scientists, so we can presume the car-people have studied their origins, and can only have concluded that they must have been intelligently designed by beings other than themselves.
We know, too, that the car-people think about grander matters than who will win the World Grand Prix, because we see the Popemobile… which has a Pope-car inside! The Pixar folks want us to understand that the car-people do have religion.
Furthermore, it must be quite plain to the car-people that they live with cultural oddities that make no sense in light of the needs of car-people and so — they might conclude — may be artifacts of their long-ago, now departed creators. Why would a car eat wasabi, as Mater does in Japan… and why would he have mistaken it for pistachio ice cream? What need do cars — who consume oil — have for wasabi or ice cream? Further, we — and the car-people — must wonder about such a-carlike things as the nationality and ethnicity they are perplexedly saddled with. Who inscribed the VIN numbers, which are explicitly mentioned, on their chasses? Why do they have gender? Why do they tell “your mother” jokes? What does their idiom about “fattening someone up” mean, and where did it come from? What possible sense could it make to have car-people made of metal go through metal detectors?
These must be things that keep the more philosophically minded of the car-people awake at night. Or when their ignitions have been turned off.
The thing that should keep the more philosophically minded human beings awake at night, Pixar seems to be suggesting, is the horrifying prospect of this American fantasy of intelligent design being taken up by humans around the world. If they can embrace and welcome the idiotic ugly-Americanism of Mater — the film has already made nearly $150 million outside North America — what else might they do? In the absence of any other ostensible purpose for Cars 2 to exist, we can only conclude that Pixar intends to disturb us deeply with this prospect.
• Cars (review)