Part of a new, hopefully continuing series in which I break down the plot of a film and try to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it.
My four year old son has been watching (and watching, and watching) "Cars 2" recently. Here's the plot:
Lightning McQueen enters an international racing competition promoted by Sir Miles Axelrod, the inventor of an alternative fuel called Allinol. All of the cars in the races are using the alternative fuel. But the race is being sabotaged by a mysterious figure who "ignites" the fuel from afar. McQueen is accompanied by his Radiator Springs pit crew, including Tow Mater. Mater gets mistaken for a spy by a pair of British foreign agents (Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell) who are trying to figure out who is behind the sabotage.
The secret agents don't know that Mater is really a bumbling, if good-natured, tow truck. They think he's really a secret agent. And McQueen thinks Mater's bumbling is a distraction, and they have a falling out.
Mater eventually figures out that the inventor of Allinol is actually the one sabotaging his own race. He's a "lemon" car, and he's discovered a vast oil reserve, and he plans to disgrace alternative fuels so that he and other "lemon" cars can be rich and lord it over the rest of the world. The secret agents figure out that Mater isn't a real spy, but Mater, through bravery and his good wits, overcomes his own self doubt, exposes Sir Axelrod, and saves the day. He and McQueen salvage their friendship and everything ends well.
Remember, despite the convoluted plot, that this is a film aimed at children. (The spy angle, by the way, makes for quite a few violent scenes with guns, torture, and "killing" of cars through massive destruction. That's another column.)
Mater is the main character. He has to overcome self-doubt and grow into the hero the real spies think he is. He also has to prove his value and friendship to McQueen. All of this is done fairly well, if a little contrived. McQueen loses respect for Mater when they first go oversees and Mater acts like a bumbling tourist, and is exacerbated when Mater gets distracted by the spies during a race, making McQueen lose. So McQueen has some real and exaggerated reasons for hurting his friendship. By the end of the film McQueen figures out he's been an ass, and actively seeks Mater's friendship, and Mater figures out that other people sometimes see him as a fool, but he accepts his own inner strengths and overcomes his self doubt.
It's the rest of the plot that gets in the way. Sir Axelrod, who professes to be an electric car, invented Allinol, and it seems to work. The cars in the film like it. Many international race cars volunteer to use just Allinol for the duration of the competition, so they're committed to alternative fuel. So why make the inventor of the fuel also the villain? It's confusing, especially to children. When I ask my son who the bad guy is in this film, he mentions Axelrod's evil scientist henchman, Professor Z (who is portrayed as a German, of course. Another column.) But the bad guy behind the scheme is a mystery figure until the end. It would have been much easier to have a Big Oil bad guy sabotaging the race. Are the filmmakers intentionally trying to be ambiguous about supporting alternative fuel? I can't think of any other reason to be so confusing. A bad guy masquerading as a good guy is a common "spy film" device. (I remember it being used effectively in the first "Mission Impossible" remake.) The problem here is using it in a children's film, and it results in a mixed-up, convoluted environmental message.
This is the danger of adding serious political and environmental undertones to a children's film. It can get in the way of the plot. I think the filmmakers tried to correct for this big problem near the end of the film, in an off-hand way. The franchise's resident "hippy" character, Fillmore the VW bus, has his own alternative, organic bio-fuel that he (and the film's "conservative" Jeep character, Sarge) secretly substituted to help save McQueen from an earlier attack. Fillmore dismissed Allinol as a bad fuel, but it doesn't explain why it worked earlier for all the other race cars, and it doesn't establish alternative fuel in any kind of good light. It's just more confusion.
If they had stuck with a simpler plot, and focused more on Mater and McQueen's conflict, the film would have been more successful.