Critique of liberalism in pixar original gives way to embrace of internationalism in sequel
Editor’s Note: This piece is best read after the Rover’s analysis of the original Cars film. This piece does not by any stretch of the imagination serve as an endorsement of Cars 2. Viewer discretion is advised.
Just as the Rebels’ destruction of the Death Star at the end of original Star Wars earned them only a short reprieve prior their intense pursuit by Imperial forces in the sequel The Empire Strikes Back; and just as the seeming dominance of the Corleone crime empire at the conclusion of The Godfather faded into familial disintegration in the second installment of the film series, the Pixar sequel Cars 2 inverts the narrative of its predecessor in order to create new need for dramatic resolution.
Though it inverts the narrative’s message, Cars 2 expands upon the comprehensive depiction of a world of cars that contains within it an implicit but strong critique of the liberal project from the original film. This inversion means an embrace and implicit endorsement of cosmopolitanism and a rejection of localism that is the antithesis of the original Cars. In this abandonment of the first film’s commitment to exposing the shortcomings of the liberal world, Cars 2 promotes an erosive message: the only means of success for the modern car is to go beyond the constraints of nature and the very borders of his community.
Cars 2 begins where the original film left off before complicating everything previously thought to be settled. The content and stability that was (perhaps precariously) established within the town of Radiator Springs begins to unravel in an apparently innocuous way when Lightning McQueen becomes involved in an international race competition. This exciting new opportunity for McQueen unwittingly involves the whole town—particularly McQueen’s simple best friend Tow Mater—in an international spy intrigue. In fact, it is truly this battle between international intelligence agencies and a criminal conspiracy around which the film centers. This shift in focus from the merits of a small community to the refined exploits of elite international spies reveals the film series’ abandonment of its critique of liberalism.
The original Cars film opens with an action packed racing sequence centered around the film’s protagonist Lightning McQueen. The audience’s heart races alongside the cars as the rookie race car attempts to win his first Piston Cup. In contrast, the opening scene of Cars 2 features British MI-6 lead agent, Finn McMissile, investigating criminal activity in the deep seas. After this action packed scene, the film cuts to the desolate Arizona desert as Tow Mater is towing a lowly provincial car back to town after breaking down outside city limits. Mater, who serves as the pillar of the local community in McQueen’s absence, performs his duties with great enthusiasm and love for both car and town. Soon after, it is announced that McQueen has returned to Radiator Springs, and Mater and McQueen spend a wholesome day participating in local customs such as tractor-tipping.
The film’s illumination of Radiator Springs’ submission to the soft dictatorship of liberalism begins with McQueen’s decision to join an international grand-prix against Formula 1 cars in order to protect his pride. McQueen ends his long awaited date with girlfriend Sally (whom he will not marry, despite dating her for many years) and leaves his town soon after arriving, because he remains restless despite having won four domestic Piston Cups. After deciding to bring Mater with him on the world-tour, they make their way to Japan.
The best of the film follows a traditional spy-thriller plot line with Tow Mater as the main protagonist. In a complete switch from the original film, Cars 2 focuses on excitement, violence, and suspense to engage with the audience. Amidst the chaos, Mater undergoes personal transformation and supposed self-discovery through the adventure as an international spy. At first glance, the viewer may conclude that Mater could only find his worth through adventure and international exploration: through escaping the bonds of Radiator Springs. However, the end of the film offers a complete rejection of this liberal framing.
After saving the world and returning to Radiator Springs to celebrate, Mater is visited by special agents Finn McMissile and girlfriend Holley Shiftwell. They request that Mater return to England to help with further criminal investigation, noting that he is the “smartest and most honest chap we’ve ever met.” Mater flatly denied their request stating, “As much fun as it was hanging with y’all, this” —looking at the citizens of Radiator Springs— “This is home.” Reducing his success to simply “hanging out,” Mater does ask to keep his special rockets that MI-6 added to his body. The film then shows him using these special rockets to do what he does best: continuing to tow other cars and enjoying time with Lightning McQueen on the scenic desert tracks surrounding their town. His adventures and self-reflection were done out of duty to McQueen and Radiator Springs, and he used his international experiences to further improve the local community around him.
Meanwhile, out of what duty does Finn McMissile perform his duties? Perhaps his fealty to the Car Queen of England provides some semblance of loyalty to a true community in his nation. But more likely, he goes about his fantastical, Bond-like covert activities in the name of some vague notion of “international security interests.” His counterparts in the CIA (one of whom is tragically killed) have no true different motivations, not admitting any particularity to the place from which they come.
Springing from this lack of rootedness, the movie viewer never sees these spies return to any home or attain any reprieve from the restlessness that marks their profession (much like James Bond himself, who never truly enjoys the safety he creates as a spy). Conversely, both the love Mater shows Radiator Springs and the love that overflows within Luigi and Guido’s native Italian village demonstrate what true attachment to community yields.
As seen in the climactic chase where each citizen of Radiator Springs uses their unique abilities to come together and save McQueen, communities such as Radiator Springs provide for an individual’s spiritual and material needs when he has fallen into a difficult circumstance. The value of this sort of tight-knit community is again manifested in the treatment of McQueen’s team in Luigi and Guido’s ancestral village: the degree of hospitality and care that the team receives has no parallel in the life of agents like Finn McMissile, who could not even conceive of friendship in the way Mater describes it to him because of the danger it poses to his lifestyle.
The stark inversion between Cars and Cars 2 is best articulated through their respective soundtracks. Cars opens with the famous track titled “Real Gone” by Sheryl Crowe. The song begins, “I’m American made, Bud Light, Chevrolet, my mama taught me wrong from right” as the famous guitar riff repeats. In contrast, Cars 2 concludes with the lesser-known rock anthem titled “Collision of Worlds” by Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams. This piece claims, “And we can’t pretend to live on different planets, you and me,” drawing poetic equivalences between “Abbey Road, Route 66…the CIA, MI6.”
The song’s denial of the significance of the particularities that mark communities misrepresents how localities build valuable relationships through shared differences and simultaneously omits the morality systems that all communities build up in their own peculiar way. In this erasure of local culture, this second song substitutes a shared “culture-lessness”—or an “anticulture” as Notre Dame professor of political science, Patrick Deneen, describes in his acclaimed book Why Liberalism Failed—for the true culture of the characters of Radiator Springs. This true culture, which Mater understands well, distinguishes the community’s members from others by the particular way of life that it prescribes, while at the same time instilling the same sense of morality that all true cultures seek to instill in its people.
Nico Schmitz is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies from Pasadena, California. Like Mater’s adventure, he spent a large portion of his upbringing living abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. His time abroad has made him idolize the locality of Mater and Radiator Springs. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk Cars or your favorite interstate.
Luke Thompson is a junior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. Taking his example from Finn McMissile, he originally planned to spend this semester abroad in London, before coming to senses after seeing Mater’s touching speech at the end of Cars 2 and staying home at Notre Dame. Please reach out to him with any questions or challenges to race at email@example.com.
Photo Credit: Pixar promotional materials