Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cars 2- How Spies and Pixar Go Together

    This morning a friend and I did a Pixar double feature: we watched Up and Cars 2. In another post, I'll go through Up piece by piece and explain what writers can learn from the movie. For now, let us turn to writer John Lasseter's latest creative venture.

   Cars 2 ups the stakes from the first movie by introducing the World Gran Prix, an international race that promotes Allinol, and alternative fuel. Racecar Lightning McQueen joins the race and brings his best friend Tow Mater for the trip; they soon find out that unlikely friendships are more complicated than they appear.

   The movie also introduces a mob of "lemon" cars that sabotage the race and Allinol's reputation. Fighting the mob are British spies Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell; they recruit Mater after mistaking him for an American spy. They have to stop the lemon car mob from killing Lightning McQueen before the races' conclusion in Britain.

   I will analyze the movie by talking about the movie's concept and themes, and how they play out. I am going to talk about the plot in detail, so please do not read if you do not appreciate spoilers.


           John Lasseter wants to introduce two key concepts during his newest film: spies investigating an oil conspiracy and the regular Cars cast learning to get along. The two concepts have distance that needs bridging and balance, given how far apart they can be on the genre spectrum. Brad Bird previously tackled superheroes in The Incredibles, but he was careful to mix in plenty of humor with the movie's real dangers; when people died in, they usually died in an explosion or off-screen. Lasseter has to recreate that same distance from reality without retreading on Bird's territory.   

           Balance is the first issue; Pixar needs to reconcile the harsh nature of mob conspiracies with the Cars world that we've become familiar with. The company has learned from Wall-E to present a colorful world with hope of getting better, at least in terms of contemporary problems. Cars 2 in this case attacks the idea of alternative fuels and organized crime and shows both being handled with hope.                             
                 Pixar also can't seriously injure Mater, McQueen, or the British spies; they only kill two minor characters to establish the movie's stakes. The villains even implement a classic death trap when they finally get their hands on Mater, defusing the fear that Mater will die for real. Lasseter then raises the tension by revealing that Mater was allowed to escape the trap and has a bomb strapped to his air filter. Right after that reveal, however, humor is implemented into a serious car chase and Mater's friends successfully take down the lemon mob; the bomb never even gets a chance to explode, and the viewer can breathe easily. The bomb is also not treated the way it would be treated in real life; it's mostly seen as an obstacle, not a life-threatening terrorist situation until Mater talks to the Queen of England.

             One may argue that Pixar fails to temper the scary stuff in Cars 2, given the number of parents and younger kids who did not appreciate car spies being tortured to death or using guns. Critics also did not appreciate Mater being the film's main character, although he goes through more character development than McQueen. On the other hand, older audiences have appreciated the movie and the James Bond twang within the soundtrack; the movie may have fared better with a PG rating and a marketing slant at teenagers and college students, who would appreciate it.              
            Bridging is the second important issue; the viewer needs to believe that the Cars world can have colorful characters like Mater and dangerous ones like the lemon mob. Lasseter manages to introduce exciting spies by first having a short but exciting action sequence in which British Agent Finn McMissile infiltrates a corrupt oil rig and fakes his death. McMissile's explosive gadgets and brutal tactics draw the viewer in; no viewer can resist a movie with gorgeous explosions. Once the tension is set, we switch to Radiator Springs, where Mater plays some pranks on McQueen and learns hilariously to respect his best friend's boundaries. Lasseter wastes no time in connecting McQueen and Mater to McMissile's missions, using the World Grand Prix as a bridge.

            Belief is the final issue; the viewer needs to believe that Mater can appear as an American spy, and that the British agents made an honest mistake. Lasseter finds a creative solution: he has the real American agent attach his information to an oblivious Mater, who then impresses the British agents with his knowledge of old cars. That knowledge helps them find a necessary informant and the lemon mob's connection to the World Grand Prix, and also saves Mater's life when the car bomb is strapped to him. Mater in this case cannot be stupid or arrogant, only tactless; he keeps trying to tell the agents that he's only a tow truck, and that he doesn't want to mess up their mission.        


            The original Cars movie focused on a racecar learning to appreciate people, not metal trophies. He takes that lesson to heart in the sequel with his best friend Mater when trying to work out their unlikely friendship after several months spent in the World Grand Prix. Even if you appreciate people, however, you also have to be patient with their more annoying characteristics. Lightning McQueen has to learn that the hard way with Mater, who has the tact of well . . . an ignorant tow truck. Mater in turn realizes that other cars, including McQueen, think he's an idiot and laugh at him; he tries to change himself; when the change doesn't work out, he leaves so that McQueen has a better chance at winning. Any person in a similar situation would sympathize with Mater, who tries so hard to help.
           Friendship has to go two ways, always, Pixar reminds us; that phrase becomes the movie's main theme and visual motif. We first see it when McQueen doesn't like Mater's idea of a good time in Radiator Springs, has the tact not to say so, and tries to have a quiet dinner with his girlfriend; Mater doesn't get it and poses as McQueen's waiter at the dinner. This gets reinforced later when Mater keeps embarrassing himself in Japan and in from of McQueen's race car friends and when he messes up McQueen's racing in Japan. The final glimpse of the visual motif occurs in London, when McQueen chases a bomb-strapped Mater and refuses to let him disappear into the British traffic. Even when Mater uses rockets to propel himself away, McQueen hangs on; although the action further endangers McQueen, it shows that he won't give up on Mater the way he had previously in the movie.                  
           Contrasting Mater and McQueen's disintegration friendship is McQueen's rivalry with Francesco Bernoulli, an Italian racecar; Francesco constantly insults McQueen but shows respect and even sympathy for the latter. McQueen soon develops a similar banter and respect for Francesco, recognizing the other car's desire for an honest race and that one should hold on to potential friends. At the same time, becoming friendly rivals with Francesco does not interfere with staying Mater's best friend and in fact helps it thrive.

           Becoming part of a spy mission helps Mater break from his borderline obsessive friendship with McQueen because he meets McMissile and Holly Shiftwell, his "girlfriend"; they give him another world to explore and interact with. He gets his self-confidence back when providing information about car parts, only to lose it when McMissile compliments him on appearing like a fool. Mater finally shows confidence when McQueen encourage him to act on his belief that Miles Axelrod, creator of Allinol and the Grand Prix is the head of the lemon mob. Even though they don't believe him, the British agents' obvious questions help Mater solidify his accusation to them and the audience because he can address any lingering doubts. Mater even becomes an honorary British knight and spy, although he turns down the offer to go on another mission (WHY? We need a Cars 3) in favor of staying in Radiator Springs.

           Lessons to be Learned
          1. When you are writing with different concepts, figure out how your characters will bring them together For that, you need to figure out your characters' motivations and roles in the story and how they will change thanks to the plot. Lasseter built the Cars world to inhabit multiple genres and characters; similarly, you should also built your fictional world to inhabit diversity.

          2. Themes often have two sides to them and can be used to establish visual motifs; exploit these motifs in as many ways possible. Use contrasting characters, increasingly intense conflict scenes, and explosions. Everything is better with explosions

         3. Use humor to defuse situations that may become too terrifying, depending on your audience.
          See what you can do with these lessons, if you can implement them into your writing. See if Pixar can be channeled!

               Image cited
     Lasseter, John, and Brad Lewis. Cars 2. Digital image. IMDB. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. .

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