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Shallowness in children's fiction : Cars 2


distressed car

Pixar is a movie studio that has exemplified sensitivity and depth in children's fiction. Their movies display a real understanding of both a child's world and the adult realities that surround it. They consistently are able to provide movies that are both highly entertaining and yet embued with an extra depth that makes both children and adults care about the characters and world of the movies. It seems as if they not only have the technical and artistic skills required to make great movies, but also that elusive vision of what greatness in this genre really is.

Cars 2 released in 2010 however is an anomaly. At the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes Cars 2 ranked in at 39% while all other PIXAR franchises rated in the high 90's. It's a movie that is violent, shallow, and ultimately lacks the magic in the other Pixar movies. This is not due to a failure of execution but rather the successful execution of a bad script and poor concept.

To those not familiar with the movie, Cars 2 is a violent children's movie full of scenes of death and brutality. The movie opens with a clandestine boat ride to an oil rig where the dead and crushed body of a murdered character is dumped on the floor in front of his horrified friend. In the next few minutes during an attempted murder maybe twenty or so characters are killed by bullets, explosions, drowning, and other violence. And things don't get better as the movie progresses. The cars continue to be terrorized and abused throughout the movie including being set on fire, assaulted by gangs in bathrooms, turned into living bombs, and tied down and tortured to death.

The rating for the movie is G.

How? How could that be? The short answer is that the film is so shallow that we just don't care about the characters or the violence. The movie should have been PG in any case but while watching the movie even adults may be hard pressed to emotionally attach to the events described above. It's as if the movie characters had reverted to the inanimate source material they started from causing us to feel as much emotion as we would feel watching a child hurling one handful of toy cars at another. You would have to work against the movie to try to feel for these characters. The movie is not just shallow but engenders shallowness in the viewers.

Cars 2 is not this way on purpose. This stunted depth is the result of a few misunderstandings about children's fiction.

To understand what makes Cars 2 so shallow and violent we can contrast the movie with two other brilliant films from Pixar, Up and Finding Nemo, both of which deal with death and violence in a deep and meaningful way.


Meaning, Effect, and Pacing

On the fringes of both Up and Finding Nemo, there are tragic events in the past. In Finding Nemo, Nemo's mother and many unborn siblings are killed in a gruesome attack that only Nemo and his father survive. That long-ago event drives a complex relationship between the father and the son and defines how they relate to the world. In Up the death of an old man's wife is the bedrock that supports all his decisions and drives all of the actions of the movie and how he relates to others. In both cases these deaths matter to the movie. The movies care deeply about these events and so we care too. Each death has profound effects on the stories.

Even though the majority of both films' pacing ride on the roller-coaster ride of a child's attention span there are brief spaces created in the pacing for the real horror under the surface, resonating from past events, to bloom into fear, sadness, and loneliness from time to time in the current narrative. Also, even in the happiest of times, the characters' actions are still driven by the events of the past. This makes the decisions of the characters feel "real" and important because they are fighting to find joy in a scary world just like the child (or adult). The movies don't gloss over these deaths. They focus on them and they let us know in many ways that it means something to the characters. It matters to the movies themselves.

In Up this isn't an old man who's old wife has "gone somewhere." We meet Eddie when she is the same age as the children watching the show. We care about her. And although we see her grow up and die in minutes she is always that little girl to us. She never enters the movie again which goes on to explore strange new lands, talking dogs, and blimp-fights, but we never are allowed to forget her. Ever. The movie is about how we and the main character feel about her and what she stands for. By "her" I mean about people we love, friends, mothers, wives, and anyone who could be lost; whom we love and who loves us. How do we live our dreams with that fear of loss?

The movie is layered expertly so that the child doesn't think about it. They just meet the story at the level they need or want to. It works because of the multi-layered story, plot, characters, animation, etc. There is distance built in if the material is too painful or the audience has other needs. For instance if you just need to watch Up for the pratfalls they're there. If you want an adventure it is there. But there is a death in Up, and it is meaningful and sad and you have to deal with that sometimes in the movie. If you want the comedy then you have to wait through some uncomfortable moments of grief.

More even than the fact that these deaths are meaningful, is the fact that the movies have real information to impart on how to deal with them. The movies don't ignore grief but they also don't end in grief. Instead they incorporate these real feelings of fear and grief and find a place for them in a joyful life of adventure. They teach children how to feel joyful and alive in the face of fear. They teach children that feeling sad and scared is ok because it is part of the larger spectrum of feeling which also includes joy, love, happiness, and maybe, ultimately peace.

Now let's look at Cars 2 again. Here is a movie that is telling you outright that the deaths on the screen don't matter. A character dies and we go straight to a joke. So the consequence or effect of a death, or act of violence, is a joke... or nothing.

After a death or traumatic event we move to the next bit, the race, the next fight scene. Even if you wanted to care you are not really able to. You are not allowed to know any of the characters before they are hurt, nor are you allowed to really see their pain, loss, etc. There is no Carl to mourn an Ellie as in Up. There is no one in the movie to care about the characters, and if you happened to care yourself, if you felt any shock or revulsion at the violence and death, you are not allowed to experience it because the pacing drags your attention away to the next thing in fractions of a second. So the deaths happen, and the children are instructed by the music, the jokes, the action, etc., to ignore those deaths. Their attention is being constantly taken elsewhere. Pixar has created a comedy of cute, brightly colored cars, briefly interspersed with scenes or torture, beatings, and shootings. There is no time to reflect on the violence, deaths, or really any events. No time to feel bad for the characters even if they are initially horrified in the fractions of seconds they have before they cut to the next joke. They are "reassured" or taught in the frame work of the movie that it is ok to ignore what happened. It is not supposed to be serious. The movie is actually helping to teach shallowness.

A child sees a car fall off of a high oil rig into the water. They might worry about the car. They might stop to wonder if it will sink or float? In other words the viewer might briefly care and have empathy with the characters even though they are unknown. But the movie says: "Hey don't worry about that! Look at this! Look over here! I'm doing a joke! I'm racing another car!" When guns pop out and start firing into a crowd and things are blowing up the viewer may wonder if a car got hurt, or killed but the movie doesn't wonder about that or care. It careens on shooting more bullets and making more jokes. It tells the child to focus on the "action" not the results of the action. Considering the early age of the viewers, using humor intermixed with lethal violence is humor and action at the expense of feeling. By ignoring the violence the movie has nothing to teach but how to ignore.

This doesn't mean there isn't a place for cartoon violence devoid of emotional depth. Cartoon violence often does not symbolize real violence and is working on a completely different level. But Cars 2 is no Looney Tunes either. The cartoons do not get back up ready for the next bit. They get hurt and die; it just doesn't mean anything.

Genre and Symbolic Construct

People find emotional depth in what they are emotional about or what they can be emotional about. They find relevance in what they are dealing with and what is happening inside them. Cars 2 uses a symbolic construct and genre, the spy thriller, that is both unfamiliar to children and does not reflect a child's inner world.

Up and Finding Nemo both use the family as the primary symbolic construct for their movies. Even though they are both action movies they are both consciously about families and family dynamics. In Finding Nemo, because of the loss of his wife and children, the father's relationship with Nemo is fearful and overprotective. It hightens a family dynamic we are all familiar with. Parents struggle to protect to their children and children struggle for independence even at a very early age. Both parents and children worry about what bad things might happen and both seek to live a joyful life in the face of real dangers and tradgedy. In Up an old man tries to honor the pain of his wife's death while also trying to live a life worthy of their youthful goals. By teaming up with a young boy who also seeks to fill a missing role in his family life, they both come face to face with their underlying motivations for the adventure they are on and arrive at a nurturing family arrangement infused with the spirit of adventure they sought externally.

The family is a symbolic construct that children all understand and have a deep knowledge of and interest in. A child's relationship with its family is, even at an early age, an intense and complicated thing. It may be filled with love, need, fear, joy, conflict, and many other contradictory feelings all at once. Family relationships are the primary relationships at this age so even young children have deep feelings about family (or lack of it). When a "father" character or "mother" character is introduced it symbolizes to each child a complicated association of feelings, memories, fantasies, and fears. The characters can be used symbolically as opposed to literally, representing an important and personal inner complex of feelings in children (and adults). The deaths or absence or mothers, fathers, siblings, etc., also are symbolic and can be used to reflect real fears and conflicting feelings children feel about their family, safety, and therefore the world at large.

Compare these immediate and deep feelings about mothers, fathers, siblings, and others to a child's emotional and symbolic relationship to international energy cartels, or the environmental issues of racing fuel, or conspiracies?

None of us probably has very strong emotional connections to energy cartels and international conspiracies. The spy thriller is also not a genre that most children have an emotional use for. The spy thriller is a tool for adolescents and adults and does not provide any way for children to interact with it. It deals with metaphors and situations that children are not yet familiar with and reflects psychological structures that children are not generally dealing with such as grey morality, male potency, one-vs-many, false reality, untrustworthy authority, sexuality, intelligence-vs-force, technology, non-personal (global) threats, etc. This is not the way children at this age think.

This is not to say that deep and meaningful spy stories cannot be created for very young children. There are definitely elements of mystery, danger, personal autonomy, discovery, power, and much more that can be worked with. But most young children will be seeing this for the first time with no knowledge of the genre at all. To bring out elements that children could attach to it must be adapted to a "first time" child's eye view.

But Cars 2 did not adapt the spy thriller genre to children. It might seem like it did because it used humor but it actually did not. Instead of highlighting the tools and stories that might be of psychological/emotional use for children it tried to parody the adult genre. Not only did Cars 2 attempt to parody the spy thriller genre but more specifically it attempted to parody what they perceived as genre cliches. And this is the reason for the violence in Cars 2


Parody, Cliche, and Violence

Cliches are created through repeated personal exposure. As we are exposed to them more and more they become fused together and loose their ability to affect us emotionally. But the media patterns that become cliches for us don't start as cliches. For instance, when someone is introduced to the spy thriller genre it's all new and exciting. If we respond to the genre then we are going to be dazzled by the narrow escapes, the high-tech tools, the double crosses, and the violence. As we continue to watch spy thrillers certain elements of the genre, or the genre as a whole, becomes cliche. We know what's going to happen and it loses it's power to affect us. The important thing to note is that cliches are created through individual exposure. (More on the formation and effect of cliches here).

Cliches are very easy to parody because they have very defined patterns but only if the viewer has appropriate exposure and therefore sees something as a cliche. The crux of the parody issue is this. Children have not created internal cliches from this genre. In fact most young children have never (hopefully) been exposed to the full adult version of the spy thriller at all. While the adults involved in creating Cars 2 are parodying an old cliche of a spy being tortured for information with a strange high tech device, the children are just seeing a parody of torture not a parody of the cliche of torture. With cute cartoons.

So because the object of the parody, the cliche, does not exist at all for the target audience, because the audience has never seen the spy thrillers the movie is parodying, many of the symbols are being seen for the first time. The English accents, the high tech weapons, the pencil mustaches, etc., are all being seen for the first time with no history or context. This loss of personal context and jumble of meaningless imagery further flattens out the emotional ties to the story and increases the confusion of cause and effect.



It seems that Cars 2 failed at the most basic levels. This situation is not uncommon in children's fiction.

The reasons children's fiction often succumbs to this type of treatment is fairly easy to see. Children's movies want to literally capture children's attention; action, comedy, and hyper-fast pacing are common tools. Allowing for space to feel seems like a risk. Introducing "negative" emotions and psychologically difficult issues comes across as an impediment to the mildly euphoric goal of most children's animation. Why would children want to be confronted with tragedy, loss, alienation, sadness, doubt, etc? The irony is that excluding these deep feelings and moments of contemplation removes some of the very core uses and purposes of fiction. Children can not use the stories to process their fears, anxiety, and emotions. These shallow movies capture their attention but not their hearts and are forgotten as quickly as they are consumed. This species of "safe", light, and empty entertainments can never change or even affect their audience.

This is not a tragedy. Not every piece of fiction has to do more than distract, but at their worst, shallow films actually show us how to be shallow. They teach us how to ignore the pain and suffering of others and to "not think about it" but move on. Go to the next experience. We all have that instinct and these movies let us indulge in it.

So Pixar, let those that can't do better make those kind of movies. The world will be watching your movies for a long long time to come. You've got the team and the vision and the audience can't wait to see what you come up with next.