My brother sent a cinema gift card with tickets to Cars 3, so my son and I were all prepped to go when my wife, rightly, pointed out her and my daughter would not be left behind. There would be no “Girls go do the weekly shop while the boys go watch a racing car movie”.
This turned out to be an inspired decision as the next 90mins were filled with excitement, comedy and message upon message that speaks to parents and children alike about mentoring, parenting, self-worth, and feminism.
The movie is great, easily the best of the three (and I really liked the first two). Go see it. Stop reading this review now and just go see it, you won’t regret it.
There, review part over.
Now I’m going to over think things for a while. It’ll probably only make sense if you’ve seen the movie, so beware, spoilers.
For me there were two strong story lines in this movie. One that spoke directly to me and one that I hope spoke directly to my kids.
1. A switch in direction
As I sit here, in my mid 30’s, raising two children, I find myself in an interesting place with regards my work/life balance. I’m a military helicopter pilot but it’s getting harder to deploy for long periods at a time; my parental social life is worlds away from that of the young single junior pilots. In short, I’m not the speediest race car on the track anymore.
I’ve entered a period in my life when you start to question what defines you. That debonair Ray-Ban wearing military pilot is an identity I have owned for well over a decade; but will I be that guy in another ten years? If not, then who will I be?
Lightning McQueen isn’t the coolest, fastest car in this movie. Not by a long shot. As he faces the constant march of aging he is forced to confront what life might be like without racing as his identity. In a pivotal scene he returns to the town that Smokey (Doc Hudson’s mentor) is from and learns that his feelings are exactly the same as Docs were. He’s experiencing what happens to all racers, athletes, people, when their lives begin to drift away from their initial passions. Smokey describes how Doc withdrew, couldn’t handle life without racing, until one day he started writing letters home. Smokey opens the garage door and pinned to the wall are 100’s of newspaper clippings of Doc and his young mentee, Lightning McQueen.
“Doc didn’t love racing again, Lightning, he loved you”.
Maybe it’s the Dadblogger in me but I was reading father/child relationship ALL over that, much like the tears that were all over my face as my son cuddled up to me in the cinema seats.
Lightning McQueen is coming to the realisation that all cartoon cars eventually come to: that the act of parenting/mentoring others to succeed far surpasses the feelings of egotistical pride that individual personal success provides.
In Cars 1 he learnt about humility, in Cars 2 he learnt about friendship, and now he’s learning about selflessness. If this isn’t the story arc of every father I know then I’ll hang up my blogging boots right now!
2. The Confidence Gap
The new character, and true star of the movie, is Cruz Ramirez. She starts out as Lightning’s new trainer and slowly depth upon depth is added to her character. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s wonderful.
Halfway through Cruz and Lightning have an argument and she explains how she didn’t grow up wanting to be a trainer. How she grew up wanting to be a racer. She put all her effort into it, she saved all her money and she was the best and fastest racer in her area. Then she showed up for her first race, heard the roar of the big engines and thought she couldn’t compete. She told herself that she didn’t deserve to be there and left before even entering the race.
She asks Lightning how he knew, in his first race, that he was great and he responds with the most important line of the film:
“I guess I just never thought I wouldn’t be”.
He never doubted himself, he never had anyone challenge him, he never had anyone tell him he couldn’t or shouldn’t be a racer. And yet Cruz’s upbringing was summed up as “Dream small or don’t dream at all”.
I’ve read an interview with the screenwriter Kiel Murray where they described wanting to highlight “The male/female Confidence Gap”:
Kiel: “I have a daughter and two sons, and I’ve been keenly observing the boys’ natural confidence and my daughter’s self-doubt. Even though she is very brave and does amazing things, her initial go-to thing is a lack of confidence. She’s twelve now, and I’ve also seen it with her friends.
It got me into reading about the recent studies of a natural confidence gap in girls. And I talked to a lot of women at Pixar in leadership positions who said they really identified with that. Even though they are in places of success or power, they still had nagging self-confidence issues. We also talked to Cristela about her own life story and her confidence issues while coming up in comedy.”
How many women, regardless of ability, tend to downplay their skills or lack the confidence to put themselves forward? Whereas, in contrast, how many men seem to be brimming with confidence and so seize the opportunities that some women, or cars, in Cruz Ramirez’s, case, fail to grab?
Throughout Lightning’s training she is right along side him, keeping pace with every drill and yet no one looks on her as a serious competitor. Back in that old town where Smokey lives she meets one of the first female racers, a lady who had to steal numbers in order to get herself on the track. Faced with three racing legends, two men and one woman, you can see how inspired Cruz is by Louise Nash, the lone female role model. This is the part I’d point people towards when they ask why is it important to have a female character like Cruz or a female superhero like Wonder Woman or “why can’t girls just want to emulate Lightning?”.
It should come as no surprise that I woke my 1 year old daughter up at this point so she could, at least by osmosis, start taking mental notes!
Does the movie pull back from landing a really impactful feminist punch?
For as much admiration as I have for the screenwriters and the story they developed surrounding Cruz I do have a few small gripes.
- Why did Cruz’s final confidence and success have to come from the altruistic gestures of Lightning?
- Why did it take a man speaking up for her for her talents to be recognised?
I’d have loved to have seen her talents recognised earlier, have Lightning McQueen accept that his time has come and begin training her himself. Then, at the climatic race, instead of Smokey rolling onto the Crew Chief pedestal it could have been Lightning. Have Cruz starting out and winning the race on her own merit.
In a throw back to the story of Louise Nash, Cruz could have stolen a set of numbers, entered the race herself and smoked both Jackson Storm AND Lightning. #Thisgirlcan
For me either of those endings would have made an already great “accept no limitations” theme into a perfect one.
Unsurprisingly I’m not the only one who thought of this and I found a really interesting interview with Director Brian Fee on exactly this topic and the number of alternate endings they tried.
The Take Home message
So I watched Cars 3 and saw elements of the Joy of Parenting and Female Empowerment, but what did my kids think of it?
On the ride home my wife said to my son:
“Wasn’t that great buddy? Now when you go to bed this evening in your race car bed you can pretend to be Lightning McQueen”.
“No” he said.
“No? You don’t want to pretend to be Lightning?”
He shook his head.
“Do you want to pretend to be Cruz?”
“No” he said again.
“Well, who do you want to pretend to be then?”
He extended his forefinger, turned it inwards and pointed at his chest,
“Me” he said.
THAT is the type of kid I’m proud to raise. As for my daughter, she’s only 1 and her vocabulary is limited to Mama, Dada, and Aubergine, but judging by her non-verbal cues, she’s in the fast lane to self-confidence. For my part, I’m thankful for films like this one that can help re-enforce that.