Cars vs. Cars 2
by Chris Eboch
My husband and I own the movie Cars and watch it at least once or twice each year. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, it’s heartwarming. Recently we watched Cars 2 on video and found it… Lacking.
Cars was nominated for an Academy Award, won a Golden Globe, and won several other awards. According to IMBD trivia, Cars 2 is the only Pixar feature film to receive a Rotten collective rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the first Pixar film not to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film since the category began, and the first Pixar film not to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Film since the award was created.
Cars 2 has a lot going for it – an action-packed plot, gorgeous animation, and plenty of humor. So why did it fall short? In a word, structure. Let’s look at some of the basics:
Main Character: Lightning McQueen. Though there are some important secondary characters, this is his story, start to finish.
Goal: To win the Piston Cup. It’s a clear goal at the start, he works toward that goal despite many complications throughout the story, and he makes his final attempt at the end.
Stakes: Fame and respect. He may change what he values most as the story progresses, but the stakes are clear and they are important to him.
Plot Arc: With a clear goal and high stakes, the plot moves smoothly and logically through a series of complications with that goal always in sight. Suspense builds as the date of the Piston Cup nears, and he can’t get there. At the climax, it’s all about whether or not he will win.
Character Arc: Lightning McQueen changes over time in a believable way as his goal shifts from fame and fortune to an appreciation of friends and community. In the end, he gives up his original goal in order to help someone else, showing how much he’s changed and learned.
Main Character: Lightning… No, wait, Tow Mater. At least, if you look at how much of the screen time focuses on one character, Tow Mater would edge out Lightning McQueen. He’s also the hero at the climax. But it takes 30 or 40 minutes before you realize this is not Lightning McQueen’s story.
Goal: Mater’s goal is weak and confusing. He wants to support his buddy, but he loses that focus for much of the story as he gets caught up in a spy plot. In the end, he wants to save Lightning, but that’s a reaction to immediate circumstances, not an overall story goal. Lightning wants to win the race and beat the foreign car, but it doesn’t seem all that important to him, and it’s not the focus of the story. Besides, he’s not the main character (is he?).
Stakes: Without a clear goal, the stakes are automatically weak. There are big stakes in the spy plot – damage to cars and destroying the reputation of alternative fuel – but the main character (whether you think it’s Mater or Lightning) doesn’t know about any of that.
Plot Arc: The plot is all over the place. It starts with a spy scene with no context. Then a racing battle is set up between Lightning and a foreign car, but first Lightning and Mater do some touring, for no particular reason except that we get to see the Cars interpretation of Japan. Then the story focuses on Mater as he gets caught up in spy activities, with occasional race scenes. It’s like two different plots rammed together.
Character Arc: People make fun of Mater, but in the end they realize he has a lot going for him. However, those are secondary characters. Mater doesn’t know that people are making fun of him until close to the end, so his plot arc lasts for about five minutes. Lightning has a slightly stronger plot arc, as he realizes he shouldn’t be embarrassed by his friend, but he gets that epiphany far before the end as well. For a strong plot arc, Mater should understand early that people see him as a fool, feel bad about it, try to change it throughout the story, and realize his true value at the end.
By looking at these simple aspects of structure, it’s clear how Cars is stronger on every count.
Focusing on a different main character in Cars 2 might have been a good idea. We saw Lightning change in the last story, so he would either need a different strong character arc, or the movie could focus on someone else. The problem is that the main character isn’t clear and doesn’t have a character arc. Without a specific hero, who has a clear goal with high stakes, the character arc is weak and the plot wanders. A lot of stuff is happening, but there’s no sense of where you are in the story – no building toward a clear climax, so the pacing is off.
I expect Cars 2 would be more enjoyable with multiple viewings. Once you know what’s going on, you could focus on the fun animation and humor. But if the moviemakers had concentrated on structure at the start, they might have had another beloved classic instead of a disappointing sequel.
Structure: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the basis of sound storytelling.
Chris Eboch is the author of Advanced Plotting. If you struggle with plot or suspect your plotting needs work, this book can help. The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to help a writer work with a completed manuscript to identify and fix plot weaknesses. It can also be used to help flesh out an outline. Additional articles address specific plot challenges, such as getting off to a fast start, propping up a sagging middle, building to a climax, and improving your pacing. A dozen guest authors share advice from their own years of experience. Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.
This really is helping me a lot. It's written beautifully and to-the-point. The essays really help you zero in on your own problems in your manuscript. The Plot Outline Exercise is a great tool! – Carmen O.
Chris Eboch: www.chriseboch.com
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