Cars 3

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, and opinionated about something that makes us very happy…or fills us with indescribable rage. In this edition: why the world of Pixar’s Cars series, and the fan theories it inspires, are so frustrating.)

With a new Cars movie racing into theaters this week (Do you get it? “Racing”? Because Lightning McQueen is a race car; it’s funny because he races, just like the movie is racing into theaters), it’s time once again to revive that dormant question that has persisted for just over a decade. How exactly does the so-called “world of Cars” work? There are few answers within the movies themselves, so a few ideas have sprung up online. Have the cars adopted the personalities of their last human drivers? Did sentient cars take over the world, sending humans off on a massive intergalactic cruise ship for centuries? Did humans literally turn into cars? These theories have all gained a level of traction (Do you get it? Traction! I made another car-based pun!), while also remaining utterly ridiculous.

To be fair, I have previously written about my distaste for cinematic fan theories, few of which are more well-known than the Pixar Theory. But today, I come not to bury the Pixar Theory, or any of those other Cars-related theories; I come to empathize with them. I do genuinely think that each of the theories mentioned in the previous paragraph are utterly silly, and that a glut of such theorizing can do great harm to film discourse at large. But specific to the fan theories zooming around Cars (“Zooming”! I made another pun!), which will inevitably kick up again after Cars 3 opens this Friday, there’s a big question worth exploring: why do people feel the urge to crack the code of whatever’s going on in the Cars movies? While some other big mainstream films can inspire fan theories, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, why is it that the Cars movies have led to all manner of conspiracy-style ideas?

Paul Newman in Cars 3

Theorizing Can Be Okay

When someone tries to explain the deeper meaning of a film, such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., it may be infuriating. (Lynch is one of our best filmmakers, in part because he has so little interest in explaining anything.) However, a Lynch-derived fan theory makes a certain amount of sense. Mulholland Dr. is a fabulous, terrifying mystery, so searching for some clues, some greater meaning, is almost a natural response precisely because there are so few answers directly provided in the film.

But…Cars? Say what you will about these films, but they are not great mysteries, nor are they designed to be. The first Cars is a laid-back, overly slow-paced and sometimes pleasant hang-out movie, where Lightning McQueen, the lead character, learns that, to appreciate his life and not take things for granted, he should get out of the fast lane and move one mile at a time. (More car-based jokes! One more, and I get a free sub.) The 2011 sequel Cars 2, a big qualitative step down from its predecessor, is a throwback to’ 60s-era spy thrillers, but its central mystery involving alternative fuels is solved clearly and quickly. The fan theories springing up around Cars have next to nothing to do with the plots or characters of these films; they nip at the core question that remains unanswered, which is how literally anything in these movies can exist.


This is Not a Normal Pixar Problem

Why do the cars in the Cars movies have handles on their doors? Why, you might ask, do they have doors? Seeing as there are no humans in this universe, or other live creatures, there would be no one to use the car doors. Right? Hell, leave aside why the cars have doors or handles: how do they have doors or handles? How did the roads on which the cars drive get built? Or the towns? Or the restaurants, or the gas stations, and so on and so on. The fan theories I cited at the top exist because there have been so few, if any, answers extended to these questions. Few other Pixar films remain so baffling in their world-building.

There may not be massive exposition dumps in The Incredibles to clarify how the main characters have superpowers, or a lengthy dissertation as to why a rat could even approach cooking a decent stew in Ratatouille, or how, in Up, an elderly man who needs help walking up or down a flight of stairs could inflate countless balloons in one night so that his house turns into a makeshift flying machine. There’s a simple reason why no such expository dialogue exists in those films, or throughout the majority of Pixar’s filmography: all you need to enjoy these movies is the appropriate suspension of disbelief. The Incredibles wasn’t even the first film in 2004 to feature superheroes. Ratatouille, for its fanciful premise, squarely took place in the real world. (Don’t forget how quickly everyone else in the restaurant leaves once the gawky human Alfredo Linguine reveals that there’s been a rat literally pulling the strings underneath his toque from the start.) And Up may have whimsical flourishes, but it still allows for necessary touches of reality, from a bloodied forehead to Carl Fredricksen’s house falling apart as the balloons start to pop after wear and tear. Cars does not have the same luxury of suspension of disbelief, nor is it interested in said luxury.

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