by Jake Levine
From darkness and meaninglessness, the words of Lightning McQueen breath life and action into Disney’s illustrious and enduring Cars franchise (sans Cars 2). The words “speed/I am speed” act as an affirmation of the centrality of McQueen’s role in the films as the protagonist, and more importantly, hero. Throughout the Cars franchise, we follow the arc of McQueen, namely, his transformation from hot-shot rookie to grizzled veteran. Within that arc, it is understood that McQueen is not merely a flashy, smooth-talking playboy, but rather a complex and rich character infused with a sense of epicness that is deserving of his role as the moral backbone of the Cars franchise.
It is within this regard, that undercurrents of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s articulations can be read in the Cars franchise, mainly with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Hero’s Journey. McQueen’s arc, in which he moves from the center of the racing world to its fringes, can be understood as reflective of Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey, a story reflected in various world cultures and indicative of an articulation of the human experience. With this understanding, the Cars franchise can be understood as a further reflection of these very stories and values that make us who we are as the human species.
It is important to understand that Lightning McQueen’s story is not separated by the different installments within the franchise, but rather continued throughout the films in a cohesive arc. Within this structure, McQueen is afforded a consistent development, and the films are able to build upon previous themes, moods and articulations. Each film exhibits some semblance of a didactic tone, as McQueen learns some important lessons: the importance of friendship and companionship in addition to taming his overinflated ego in Cars, and in Cars 3, acknowledging his own morality as well as accepting the changes of time that have left him ravished with age and a shell of the car he once was.
Here, Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey as “a series of adventures…to discover some life-giving elixir” can be understood as McQueen’s journey from Radiator Springs to Thunder Hollow, in which he discovers that life is a highway that he can ride all night long. The endings of Cars and Cars 3 reinforce these notions, as we see McQueen act in restraint during the films’ climaxes. Cars 3 shows McQueen withdrawing from the big race to allow his companion Cruz Ramirez to fulfill her dream to be a racer. More profoundly, Cars sees McQueen stop at the threshold of victory at the Piston Cup to allow the wrecked King, a legendary figure in the Cars universe, to finish his final race after being body-checked by the dastardly Chick Hicks. In both examples, McQueen acts contrary to his impulses and acts in the interest of what is right, of what makes a car a car, rather than a mindless machine.
Both outward and internal, this journey exudes a sense of epicness that extends beyond what is seen in most animated or live-action films. Lightning McQueen is a hero that we see move through heaven and hell, as he is brought to dizzying heights and crushing lows. Yet in the end, despite his trials and tribulations, he remains unbroken and unbent. Along the way, he discovers what is important in life, whether that be Tow Mater, Sally, Cruz, Ramone, Flo or even the late Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman, who is lovingly honored in Cars 3). Understanding love and companionship, he faces the confusing nature of life, articulated through his rise-and-fall arc, with a sense of dignified fearlessness, using his hero’s voice to cry out to the void with a deafening roar of “kachow” that echoes throughout the ages.