In Which I Don’t Get the Success of the Cars Movies
I’m not generally in the business of second-guessing the decisions of major companies, but I do have to express at a minimum skepticism at Pixar’s strategy regarding the Cars movies.
Specifically, I have no idea why the hell they’re the Big Tentpole Franchise that Pixar leans on for its revenue (non-Toy Story division). It—well, it’s a bit confusing, is what it is. I should admit up front that I’ve never actually seen any of the Cars movies except for like an hour of the first one in middle school (English class, I think? Maybe math or social studies? Probably a sub? I know for sure the class was being taught by one of my P.E. teachers, which makes it sound kind of like a dream, but I swear to God that this happened), so I could be missing something important.
And I’ll grant that I’m not the target audience for these movies; I’m just a bit too old and Pixar for me means the films that they released between A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles. By the time Cars 2 rolled around I was a high school sophomore and now I’m twenty and here comes Cars 3, like the slow, inevitable slide toward death.
But still, it’s maddening that I cannot seem to get a fucking grip on these movies. Why do they rate sequels, spin-offs, toys, an entire themed land at Disneyland? I seem to be missing something major, and I mean major, here.
It’s like this:
So, at first Pixar releases Cars. And that’s fine, cause that’s okay. And you go along your way, listening to Shakira on your iPod Touch (or whatever it was you were doing in 2006). You maybe take notice of it, but it doesn’t arouse your suspicion overmuch; certainly it doesn’t strike you as the harbinger of our destruction or the next bajillion-dollar kids’ franchise. You pay it little mind, in any event.
Time passes. Pixar releases more films: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3. The Mouse House, meanwhile, grows increasingly to resemble its adoptive child. 2004 sees the release of the last traditionally animated Disney movie, Home on the Range; from here on out, all of its feature films will be fully computer-animated (Disney’s incorporated computer-animated elements into its animated movies since the mid-’80s and The Great Mouse Detective, and the studio’s workflow has been computerized since The Rescuers Down Under in 1990; but the pencil has always been paramount). The CG movies they release resemble Pixar or DreamWorks films more than classic Disney, whatever that means.
In an apparent intensification of this trend, in 2009 John Lasseter takes over creative control of Disney Feature Animation. Lasseter, of course, is one of Pixar’s founders, the director of Toy Story (and Cars). On the other hand, ’09 also sees the release of The Princess and the Frog–not only a traditionally-animated movie but a princess movie. Princess was supposed to be the pilot film for a renaissance of traditional animation at Disney; ultimately this will go nowhere save for 2011’s Winnie-the-Pooh, but Princess will mark a return to form.
Cars 2—and again, this is before any of the early 2000s movies get even a whisper of a follow-up—comes out in 2011. At Disney’s California Adventure, Cars Land opens in 2012. In 2015, Pixar announces The Incredibles 2…and Cars 3. You have spent the past nine years quiescent, unknowing. But now—well, things seem stranger. Sounds are sharper, colors brighter, but everything blurs together. 2015 passes to 2016 almost unnoticeably. You wake up one morning and the news is absurd, unbelievable, and Lightning McQueen is falling, falling. Your memory doesn’t work properly—you think you can remember, but when you get closer, the memories dissolve into haze. There was an Olympics this year, but whether it was summer or winter, or where it occurred, you can’t say. Your father died this year—was he a good man? a bad one? What aftershave did he use? One day you forget your bank password; you must go through the security questions—what street did you live on as a child? What was the first concert you attended? the first car you drove? You can’t answer; you don’t remember. And still Lightning McQueen is falling.
One day you have a pleasant conversation with your neighbors; you forget it immediately. You see a therapist; but you cannot remember the way to her office without a GPS, and you can only keep up your appointments with the help of your phone. Your hands shake, sometimes violently. You now hear a ringing noise, constant, unceasing, unmodulated.
(Lightning McQueen isn’t falling, for “falling” implies a downward component to his arc which doesn’t seem to exist. Instead he’s suspended at the apex, frozen there, forever. He will fall; he has to, eventually, if the same laws of physics apply in the Cars universe as ours. But he doesn’t, isn’t falling. Why does he hang there?)
Time seems to be falling apart. In theory it’s moving forward. But it’s not like that for you. Time instead seems to move at random, without reference to anything in particular. Weeks and months pass rapidly, blurring together without any apparent demarcation; a few seconds expand into an eternity. You move backwards, sometimes, forwards at other times, even occasionally sideways (and boy, isn’t that a trip). When you sleep, you dream–horrendously vivid dreams, from which you awake parched at three and four and five in the morning, your heart racing, your throat dry as a bone, your sheets inundated with sweat. In these dreams, you can be and often are anything, anyone. You dream sometimes of great battles, in which you are a general or a grunt or anything in between; of vast and alien ruins underneath strange skies; of monsters, horrors beyond description. You write these dreams down (you can still remember how to write, thank God, though speech fails you more and more often these days). You seal the journal in which you write them, never daring to re-read it. When you look in the mirror, these days, you don’t recognize the face which looks back at you: It’s drawn, gaunt, with a mordant pallor and lines like the Grand Canyon.
(Lightning McQueen can never fall; that is the central truth upon which the world rests. No one knows what will happen if he ever does fall; and no one wants to find out. Perhaps the world will end; perhaps a worst fate will befall it. No one knows; and no one wants to find out.)
The ringing disappears eventually. It doesn’t fade, doesn’t dissipate, just cuts out, like someone’s pulled the plug. Dreams and waking life blur together. You turn in your license, sell your car.
One day, reality…fades, that’s the only word for it, and you awake somewhere you’ve never seen before, not even in your dreams. Everything’s a little too real, too sharp. You’re in a suburban development, but these houses—there’s something wrong about them. They have garages, driveways, lawns, but there are no front doors. No sidewalks, either; you’re standing on blacktop, and the driveways connect directly to the street. You can’t stay here, so you start walking—and you’re immediately run down by a Maserati. You can’t see into the windows, and your angle blocks any view of the windshield. You stagger to your feet and keep walking.
(Just as there is life much smaller than man, so is there life that’s much bigger than him. There are creatures the size of planets, the size of stars. They swim through the void between the stars, blind and never knowing the light of day. Some say that vaster beings still float through intergalactic space; but as no one has ever seen these, no one can say for certain that they exist. Sometimes they fixate on one of the small, weak points of light in the distance—for they are not completely blind, but can sense light—and move toward it. It may take a million years to traverse that void, so vast that even light, the fastest thing in existence, takes millennia to cross it; but they will get there. And one day a star system may wake up with a new body in its Oort cloud, maybe even a new planet.)
The architecture is strange, cyclopean. It’s not built for humans; there are no stairs, no sidewalks, just gently sloping asphalt. No doors. No human built this city.
It’s been hours, and the sun hangs low in the sky. You still haven’t seen a single person other than yourself. You’re in what you assume is the downtown—at least, the buildings are denser here and taller. And then it hits you: Everyone else in this city is an anthropomorphic car. You’re the only human in the city, possibly the world.
(and what a world it is! The crust is but the shell of a great and terrible beast, which sleeps forever, insensate. The beings which crawl about on its shell do not know of its existence; and it pays them no mind. Do you pay attention to the bacteria in your digestive tract, to those that crawl on your skin?)
You wake up from troubled dreams, cold and stiff and starving. You look around, in the vain hope that this too has been a nightmare; but no.
You find water, but no food. There’s plant life here, but no animals, and no fruits you recognize. You slake your thirst as best you can, and chew on a handful of the grass. The ringing is back, and it’s louder than ever. You pass out.
(There is an ecosystem here, and a twisted mechanical parody of an animal kingdom. Steam locomotives run across the plains; planes wheel through the air. Ships plow the seas.)
You stagger to your feet. There’s a dull roar, like the growl of a thousand caged predators. Everything’s a blur. It’s hot. The ringing has subsided, a little. You can tell up from down, but that’s about where your perception tops out.
(The beast is…stirring. It turns, in its sleep; a tsunami ravages the southern coast of “Asia.” Volcanoes erupt, choking the air with ash. One morning an island, and not a small one, just vanishes from the map, sliding into the ocean like a Jell-O mold off a table. Will it awake? What will happen if or when it does? No one knows, and no one wants to find out.)
Light and dark, up and down—your understanding of the universe is beginning to sort itself out. Your sense of smell is beginning to return; the scents of petrol and burning rubber hang heavy in the air, undercut by sweat and—is that blood?
(More islands have sunk beneath the waves; “Korea” has broken off and is floating southwest of its original position, in the general direction of “Australia.” The “Ring of Fire” is suddenly smoking like a chimney, while the “Mid-Atlantic Ridge” rises from the ocean floor like a berserk bamboo shoot, while a city, lost beneath the sea for countless aeons, has arisen, and its inhabitants make an attempt at reconquering their former empire that goes nowhere.)
Color has returned to your universe. Shape is—well, it’s getting there. Green. Yellow. Blue, the blue of the sky. Red. A lot of red. Grey. You touch your nose, almost absently. Your hand comes away red. The warmth spills across your upper lip. Something’s trickling down from your ear. Suddenly, everything snaps into focus. You’re at a speedway, on the infield, the only human among maybe fifty thousand cars. And Lightning McQueen is falling.
Every volcano on the planet has gone berserk, choking the skies with ash and drowning civilization in lava floes. The sky, where it’s not jet-black, is streaked with flames and clouds of smoke and ash. (On the other hand, the sunsets are gorgeous now, when the sun’s visible.) The islands of the “Pacific” are—sliding is the only word for it, like marbles atop a washing machine.
The world is in a state of emergency; every plane is grounded, every port and harbor evacuated. “Europe” has broken away from “Eurasia” along the “Urals.” The “Mediterranean” is now essentially the mouth of a channel running from the Equatorial “Atlantic” to the polar ocean that’s filling in as the ice caps melt. This is geology on fast-forward. Leviathan is awaking.
Your brain races to fill in the gaps. Auto racing is the primary sport here—of course it is, have you ever tried to play baseball with cars? The competitors will do anything to win. Injury is common, death not unheard of. The roar is deafening. The petrol smell is overpowering. You see a turtle on its back, unable to move—the first organic creature you’ve seen since you got here. You touch your nose, and your hand comes away red. Lightning McQueen falls. Leviathan is awake.
You stagger to your feet—at some point you sat back down—and immediately regret doing so, as a wave of nausea hits you. Bent double, you heave and retch, but nothing comes out no matter how hard you try. At last the half-digested grass you had—was it really this morning? —comes back up, spraying over the asphalt. You look up, involuntarily, and the sky is black—not the black of the night, which is really dark blue, but black—with shreds of blueness retreating like paper in fire. Fissures have spread through the ground; now, the grandstands are disintegrating, leaving only the track and infield. And now that’s gone, too—you’re stranded, alone on what was once a fairly stable part of a planet but is now merely an island amid a vast archipelago. You float away—the infield, or what’s left of it, isn’t nearly large enough for its gravity to hold you. Something vast and terrible has hatched from the planet; it’s too vast for your mind or senses—which are too busy adjusting to the sudden lack of gravity and air—to comprehend anything beyond a vague impression of continent-sized wings, thousand-mile limbs of some sort, and total indifference for any life-forms as small as you.
You’re floating, alone, in space. Somehow, improbably, you’re alive, and so far you haven’t had any ill effects from the vacuum, the microgravity, the radiation, the micrometeoroids—you just…float. You’re probably going to die soon, of course—you’re floating out in the vacuum of space with no space suit or way to signal for help, and unlike whatever the hell that thing that just crawled out of the planet and is now heading for deep space without so much as a by-your-leave was, you’re mighty poorly adapted for this environment. So you just float, waiting for the inevitable.
It’s interesting, actually—with no air to transmit sound through, your body is the last medium and its sounds are all you can hear. There’s so much you’ve never really heard; the whoosh of blood as it runs in your arteries, the thump of your heartbeat—no, your pulse…! —the faint creak of your joints against one another. Time moves slower out here—and slower, and slower. Days turn into months turn into years turn into aeons. The sun goes through the main sequence, expands into a red giant, ejects its outer layers, and eventually shrinks to a lump of coal, cold, dead, incapable of supporting any life at all.
You’re dead, you suppose—certainly you can’t have survived for the lifespan of a G-type star, much less done so in hard vacuum with neither atmosphere nor food. Actually, you can’t say if you’ve lasted that long—it only felt like a month or two, three on the outside, and without the orbit of a planet to measure time, who’s to say it wasn’t? At any rate, you can’t sense anything save the overwhelming feeling of floating in a vast darkness. This may mean you’re improbably not dead, but at the same time it could mean you are dead; maybe this is just what dead people feel after their death. After all, it’s not like anyone can confirm or deny this one way or the other. Best, perhaps, to accept this as the state of affairs going—
Wait—what is that? A feeling—could it be? Yes, up and down seem to be reasserting themselves in your world after a prolonged absence; you’re falling. And there’s this unpleasant sensation—a tug behind your stomach. Oh, well; it’s probably nothing serious. An air current wafts over your face, cool and sharp and refreshing as it ruffles your hair. It’s buffeting you, now, and you imagine that you’ll have to deal with ground sooner rather than later.
The gravel bites into your face, the sort of scrape that will heal relatively quickly—longer without antibiotics or bandages. You push yourself up—a twinge, like when you were a kid and you fell off your bicycle, and—yup, palms are torn to hell. Feels like you skinned a knee, too. Eh, you’ll live.
You stagger to your feet and begin to get a bearing on where you are and what exactly the nature of this new location is. There’s gravel, obviously, but besides that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of scenery; a chain of mountains stretches against a blood-red horizon. Between those and you there’s…not much, other than gravel. Still, you start walking. After a while you come across a river bed, and it hits you: You’ve seen this place before, in your dreams. Here is where all realities collide. Above you are a thousand streams of possibility. You could go…
Home—where is home, exactly? It occurs to you that you have no frame of reference for what “home” would entail, at least from this vantage point. And anyway, from here you can go anywhere, a heady feeling. Why go home? You have no prospects there, no real obligations tying you down; you were unemployed—maybe unemployable—struggling with memory loss and hallucinating, maybe on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Why go home? You read once that there are no second acts in American life. That isn’t necessarily true.
The void stretches out before you, inviting. This is in its most literal form possibility, an infinity of worlds. You’ve done this before—accidentally, yes, but you’ve got the principle down. You stretch out—it’s hard to describe exactly what happens next, only that you are floating through the timestream, free and able to move from timeline to timeline at will. And so you go out in search of a new home. Truth be told, it’s a blast; this kind of time travel—sideways rather than forwards or backwards—was a bit of a pain the first time around, but now that you’re doing it voluntarily, it’s amazing. You see vistas great and terrible in your adventures, worlds beyond imagining, some best forgotten. (in your sleep, you sometimes see those talking cars or, somehow worse, the worms, good God, the worms…!)
Are you happy with your life, with any of the lives you lead? Does it matter, in the end?