When genuine cowboys had all but died out, Hollywood started sending sagebrush Valentines to the Wild West. When the Mob's monopoly on organized crime in America began to wane, Hollywood fell in love with Don Corleone and sons. The fact that Cars 2 screeched into 4,115 theaters last Friday and did $68 million at the box office over the weekend is a cultural car alarm, one more sign that the automobile is on the verge of downshifting from souped-up engine of freedom and prosperity to superannuated fetish item of a bygone era.
Like its 2006 predecessor, Cars, Cars 2 is glossier than the topcoat of a Vegas stripper's fresh mani/pedi, 112 minutes of vroom-vroom auto-erotica. Forget peak oil, boiling oceans, $4-a-gallon gas, and gridlocked freeways. The entire universe of Cars 2 has the intoxicating new-car smell and straight-off-the-factory-line perfection of a premium luxury sedan. It's a cartoon dream world where cars don't just remain central to the culture — they actually are the culture, with mankind having been streamlined off the face of the earth in the name of better traffic flow.
Here in the real world, of course, the automobile's ultimate fate is hardly on cruise control. In 2009, even as the federal government handed out $3 billion to car owners to euthanize their clunkers, the auto industry had its worst year since 1982, selling just 10.4 million cars and light trucks. And unfortunately the next generation of car buyers doesn't seem all that eager to kick tires. In 2008, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics, just 30.7 percent of 16-year-olds got their driver's licenses, a substantial drop from the 44.7 percent who did so in 1988.
And it's not just the high price of unleaded or sympathy for the ozone layer that's driving these trends. Twenty years ago, the Internet had four wheels and a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from its rearview mirror. The first thing most teens did on their 16th birthday was head to the DMV. A car was what got you music and movies, what expanded your potential dating pool beyond the walls of your history class, what gave you a whole new network of connections to the world at large.
Now, we opt for mobility that doesn't require a two-car garage, iPhones over Camaros. We still love cars — just not quite as much as we once loved cars. Our cars are aware of this and have been trying desperately to adapt. A few decades ago, our interstates were filled with sleek predatory monsters. In recent years, however, the auto industry hasn't just tried to make cars more energy-efficient — they've made them cuter as well. Models like the Mini Cooper, the Smart Passion Coupe, and the Toyota iQ are to traditional cars what puppies are todogs, kittens tocats. We're hard-wired to respond to cuteness with affection, sympathy, the desire to nurture, and, as a result, our cars increasingly exhibit the visual signifiers that tap into this predilection. Look at the Fiat 500, with its bright eyes and roundish face — don't you just want to cuddle it? Imagine a Tata Nano leaving its nest for the first time, putt-putting down the street as it tries out its teeny-tiny wheels and adorable little engine for the first time.
But while this new breed of real-world cars looks as if it were designed by Disney rather than Detroit, the vehicles in Pixar's Cars franchise still have an anthropomorphized axle up on them. Pixar's cars don't just have headlights that look like eyes, they have actual eyes! And voices, personalities, doubts, dreams, funny accents.
Hollywood being Hollywood, there's a green theme revving softly in Cars 2, something about alternative fuel vs. Big Oil. But it takes a backseat to all the gunfire and explosions that inform the movie's action-thriller plot, and most of all, it takes a backseat to the driving. The movie isn't called Feet 2, or Fixies 2, or even Hybrid Vehicles For Upscale Environmentalists 2 — it's called Cars 2. And it doesn't just glamorize driving. With its World Grand Prix plot line, it glamorizes racing — driving elided of all utilitarian purpose, driving that burns fuel as quickly as possible for no greater purpose than entertainment.
Even worse, it delivers this environmentally reckless message to the most impressionable audience on our fragile planet — hapless dads desperate to top off their machismo while pulling nanny duty at the Sunday matinee. The 4-year-olds in the crowd are a tougher sell, no doubt, but Pixar's parent company, Disney, appears determined to win them over too. In conjunction with Cars 2's release, it's saturating America with Cars-branded bubble bath, toothbrushes, vitamins, aprons, backpacks, cake pans, clothes hampers, pretzels, drapes, Band-Aids, SpaghettiOs, and hundreds of other products in "every conceivable category" the marketing whizzes at Disney could imagine. Even when the last oil wells run dry, even as we watch polar bears succumb to sunburn, even as the world devolves into a lawless, desertified wasteland where marauding gangs kill for comfortable walking shoes, we will, thanks to Disney, still love cars.
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