One of the biggest criticism of the film “Cars” was that it was too derivative. People compared it to the movie “Doc Hollywood” with good cause. The premise was identical (big city hotshot gets trapped in small town). Plot elements were very similar (forced isolation and change of pace causes existential crisis). The ultimate resolution was the same (shallow protagonist discovers more to life than material success). In all fairness to both movies, however they both reflect a larger storytelling trope, the “Fish out of Water”. In this commonly used mechanism, a character is placed in an unfamiliar environment and the driving force of the narrative comes from either how they change to reflect that environment or how they ultimately change the environment to reflect themselves. From “Death Takes a Holiday” to “Stranger in a Strange Land” to “Beverly Hills Cop” to “Harry Potter” movies and literature are full of these kinds of stories. A more interesting discussion is why these stories seem to resonate so strongly with us as viewers.
I think at our core, we all feel like outsiders. No matter how connected we may be, there are those times and those places where we feel like we don’t belong. Most of us also struggle with who we are in the world we live and and wonder if there is more that we can and should be doing. There is the stereotypical need for us to ‘find ourselves’ in the midst of the busyness of our lives. We have a need to know that we are living our fullest life and being our most authentic selves. But there is always that sneaking suspicion that we aren’t, that we are somehow missing out on something more. It is this feeling that creates the resonance for stories like “Cars”.
Lightning McQueen has no idea at the beginning of the movie how isolated he is. He has a general sense of something missing, but is sure that emptiness can be filled by more wins, more money, or more merchandise. It isn’t until he is forced to stop and be outside his normal life that he even realizes how much more he truly wants and needs. He is forced to ‘find himself’ and because this is a Pixar movie the journey is funny and the ending is happy. It doesn’t always work out that well in real life, but we all hope it will. We hope that when we finally find the time to find ourselves that we will be better for it, that our journey will be easy, and that the people we meet will help and support us. If we knew in advance that it would all turn out well maybe we would be more inclined to start.
Find the survey to rate “Cars” here: