12 April 2012

The Epic (and Unending) Saga of Lightning McQueen

I’ll say this up front: I’m a fan of Pixar movies. Okay, I’m a fan of movies. In general. Yes, I’m a grown-up, but I still like to watch cartoons. But here’s the thing. Most of the Pixar movies are not simply for kids. They often play on the nostalgia of adults, for when they were children, as opposed to playing directly to children. I’m not sure why I feel the need to justify this. There are clearly movies that are geared directly toward children and I would not watch them. Well, if I was forced to, now that I’m a parent. But as an adult without children, I did watch animated films. I don’t think this is abnormal.

Now, there’s a lot of crap out there for kids, which is moronic and, on some level, I think, unhealthy. There was a great piece in the New Yorker recently about this very subject, particularly children’s television. And as a parent, I’ve done my best to steer my kid toward things more . . . I don’t know, enlightened. Sophisticated. As much as I want my kid to love movies like I do, to have an interest and affection for the better pieces of popular culture, there are things that filter in, things you never would’ve chosen to introduce to them in the first place. And I’m sure it’s only going to get worse, as time goes on.

But things happen. The kid goes to school, preschoolers are obsessed with Lightning McQueen and Mater, they bring in juice boxes with their images , they sport sneakers and T-shirts with these characters, and it begins to raise questions. The kid starts asking about them. A lot. The grandparents hear the kid mention this McQueen character, and suddenly, you have Lightning McQueen items in your house.

And then you face a moral dilemma: You see Cars showing on cable and you think, It can’t hurt to DVR it. He races all those cars around the room, he’d probably like to see them on TV.

But here’s the thing. You cannot be trusted. Being a parent has compromised your judgment. The years with your kid have taken their toll. It’s like being a low-level of drunk all the time. You are impaired. Things you never in a million years would’ve thought were a good idea when you were childless now seem reasonable.

Like showing Cars to your three-year-old.

Now, I know that he’s not me. And that he does not share my level of intellect. I know that what a toddler finds entertaining and what I find entertaining might not be the same thing. It’s unreasonable to expect that he might be interested in Mad Men, or even that anything he’s interested in could rise to that level of quality and sophistication. I can use Mad Men as a measurement for other things that I watch, but I cannot apply the same standards to my kid.

So, we showed him Cars. I start playing it off the DVR and the first thing I notice is the running time. It was shown with commercials, but even so, it took up an astounding two hours and 30 minutes worth of space on the DVR. Two hours and 30 minutes? What was I thinking?
 But then a peculiar thing happened. The film opens with a lengthy sequence of a race. And Lightning McQueen (the textbook reckless, hotshot rookie) is part of a three-way tie at the end of that race, which leads to the major plot point of a tie-breaker race to be held in California a few days later. At about this point in the recording, we hit the first commercial break.

And the Doozer wants to start over again. We tell him there’s more, Lightning's going to California and there will be another race. Nope. Not interested. He wants to see the beginning.
Over and over and over again.

For weeks, we watch the first 15 to 20 minutes of Cars as though it is its own self-contained story (it is not). The cliffhanger at the commercial break—will Lightning get to California to schmooze with racing sponsor Dinoco before the other cars—is completely lost on the kid. He couldn’t care less. He becomes obsessed. With that race. And every bit of action that occurs in that short time span. Hell, it’s not even the entire first act of the movie.

He learns all the dialogue. He learns the words (or at least his version of them) to the Sheryl Crow song that plays over the opening of the film. Which, by the way, references Bud Light in the first line—this song was written for this film, right? Which is for children? I’m confused.

But I digress. Eventually, we convinced him to go past that first commercial break. Each time, we’d get deeper and deeper into the film. Further along with the plot. I’m not sure how far we got, but maybe about an hour in, he’d lose interest or simply want to go back to the familiar part of the film, that first race until the commercial break.

But here’s the funny thing. The movie that I was unsure I even wanted to show the Doozer has suddenly got its hooks into me. I start to get desperate to know if Lightning McQueen finished repaving the road in Radiator Springs and got to California for the big race. What happens?

The Doozer was unmoved. I could not convince him to want to know what happened next. He was content to be entertained by the portion of the story that interested him. He’s got the lines of dialogue memorized (which I must admit, is something I do, so this is clearly my son). He loves the Fast and Furious gag on the freeway. Seriously, he walks around the house doing this affected, nasally, cholo voice, saying, “We got ourselves a nodder . . .”

Finally, after weeks (months?) of watching that portion of the film, I convince him to power through to the end. And I get to have closure with the story of Lightning McQueen. Finally.

But now he knows there's a Cars 2 and wants to watch that.

Damn you, Lightning McQueen! What have I done?

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