01 July 2011

Mule Child

I'm good friends with a three year old who has been waiting for approximately his entire life to see Cars 2. He owns everything related to Lightning McQueen and knows the name of every car and occasionally says "I eat losers for breakfast!" It's pretty great.

But, to be honest, that's about as far as my Cars enthusiasm ever went. I love me some Pixar, but the story of learning to find peace in slowing down and reminiscing didn't ever really hit home for me the way it did other people. My favorite bits of nostalgia hit about ten years prior to the "Radiator Springs" era and generally reside on the other side of the world. (Re: 40s. London.)

When I heard that Pixar was doing a sequel to Cars I was a little disappointed, but prepared to jump on the bandwagon because ultimately what made the first Cars watchable (if not re-watchable) for me was the strength of the story. I didn't relate to it personally, but I could at least respect the way the story was told. It had heart, a good center, and interesting characters and tractor tipping. I could buy it. So I bought my ticket to see Cars 2 expecting not to fall in love, but at least to be entertained. It is, after all, a Pixar film.

To be perfectly blunt, it's a mercy the funny short "Hawaiian Vacation" came before the film because people should see that, but I sort of wish that it had come at the end of the film instead so that I could have left on a note of relief instead of a note of: "Pixar - you are worth so much more than this!"

Instead the film was a bit of a mess. It couldn't decide what it wanted to be - an action spy farce, a story about friendship, a mystery, a quirky comedy, a story about travel. . . there were so many possibilities rolling around. Individually, they all could have worked. Instead the story lacked focus and direction. It meandered all over the place and got nowhere.

I think the biggest problem with Cars 2 ultimately was the need for a reminder about the lesson I try to teach my writing students each year: character development. When you're writing a personal essay or a short story, it is extremely hard to pull off a story where your main character is static. I'd say very close to impossible, but I've read a handful of stories where it has worked. But those stories are extremely rare and hardly ever for children. The center of Cars 2 wasn't Lightning McQueen, it was Mater. The problem with this isn't that Mater isn't a nice sort of character (though I do find him utterly obnoxious in large doses), it's that Mater is alright with who he is. He is the definition of blissful ignorance. It's what makes him the perfect sidekick.

But this film attempted to force a storyline on Mater that would make him not alright with who he is. Through a series of mistakes that he makes, (and the helpful reminder of a montage of those same scenes, just in case you missed it) Mater gets a brief and small awareness that he's not "normal". But there's no real attempt on his part to try and grow out of that. He doesn't try, for example, to mimic the accents of the British cars. Or adopt their vocabulary. He notices his difference and is a little sad by it, but doesn't really do anything about it. In the end he realizes that who he is is just fine, but it's a small won prize and a bit of a letdown in the end. He's too static a hero to be a hero.

The real story - Lightning McQueen learning to be alright with who Mater is - would have been awesome. Accepting friends as they are and not as you would like them to be is a fantastic lesson. Unfortunately, it was cut short. Shame.

(And is it maybe a bit sad that during the London section of the race, all I could think was: "that's not how you get there!"?)

In brighter news, the film for next year, Brave, looks awesome. I still love you, Pixar. Let's just put the mule child film back where it belongs and forget this ever happened and go back to what you do best: tell a real story with characters people care about.


A. Bailey said...

Quote: "She could write for a newspaper." ~Mark Bailey. Joni, you never cease to amaze me with your writing and analysis. Some people become English/Writing teachers as a back up plan and they are lousy at it. Some people become English teachers because they have a passion for it. They have a gift for analyzing what works (or doesn't) and why and another gift for imparting their passion to their students. You have both of those gifts in abundance. If I were a student I would want you as a teacher. If I were a parent, I would want my kid to have you as a teacher. If I were the New York Times I would hire you to write a weekly column for my paper. You are brilliant. Thanks for this awesome review.

Joni said...

Thanks to you and Mark for your kind words. You flatter me, but I'll take it! Love you.