In order to avoid watching one movie on repeat forever, I picked up a handful of titles from the local library. On the top of the stack was Disney/Pixar’s Cars. Mater’s Tall Tales had distracted our toddler through a few nail clippings, so I figured it was a safe bet.
I wasn’t sure if anthropomorphized automobiles would be as engaging as talking snowmen and superpowered princesses. And, at first, that seemed to be the case. I wasn’t that interested to begin with. Erin was pretty sure the opening sequence had left her neurologically impaired. But we rolled with it.
What I learned, eventually, was that it might not matter what the thing on screen looks like as long as it gives a reasonably human performance. I wasn’t too surprised when our toddler identified Mater, the comic sidekick, and Lightning McQueen, the star. Netflix had primed that pump and Grandma had presented a field hockey stick with their images emblazoned on it some time back.
What did surprise me was the emotional engagement with Doc Hudson, The Fabulous Hudson Hornet, voiced by Paul Newman. Emotional engagement with Paul Newman would be understandable. Grandpa is essentially a tougher version of him. But a secondary cartoon character?
Yes. There’s a scene later in the movie where Doc puts on his old racing tires to work off some stress. Lightning McQueen witnesses him doing laps around a canyon. It’s a big deal for the plot. McQueen’s been disrespecting this person who is essentially his hero. Our toddler, who only kind of understands English, really shouldn’t grok that. But a gasp preceded wide eyes, a pointing finger, and, “Oh! Doc vroomin’!” (Vroomin’ is what cars do. The dropped g’s are my fault.) There was some nodding and a single clap.
Somehow they’d set the stage for someone not yet two years old to comprehend a tonal shift. We’d seen something similar with Frozen, but it’s worth noting that Disney, for all its flaws, seems to do this kind of thing really well. Do I think Cars a good movie? I kind of don’t care. I love it a little bit for showing me something about my child.
Roger Ebert, in his review, suggested it lacked the stakes of other Pixar films without a child surrogate:
I wonder if the movie’s primary audience, which skews young, will much care about the 1950s and its cars.
But Doc isn’t a Hudson Hornet for kids. He’s a Hudson Hornet for my mother. When I related this story to her, she was quick to offer that her uncle had owned one. He’s not The Fabulous Hudson Hornet for kids. He’s the Fabulous Hudson Hornet for NASCAR fans, for the parents and grandparents paying admission. Doc is a complex engaging character with emotional resonance for kids.