Ever wonder why so many movies made for kids are enjoyable for kids and adults alike? Well, maybe it’s because we’re seeing deeper meaning and messages hidden in them than our supposed “grown-up” movies contain and I’m about to show you a great example.
Hello, Spiritual Seekers! And welcome to another Examining the Spiritual Elements of Movies episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.
Wow...what is it with me having convoluted, tongue-twister titles like that?
Anyway, I had thought I wasn’t going to do one of these episodes this week, but inspiration struck and I felt I absolutely had to get this message rolling out there. Today I’ve decided to have a little fun with this series and take a look at an animated movie. Well, actually, at two animated movies:
Pixar’s Cars and Cars 3.
Okay, I can hear you screaming and groaning at me now. Why Cars movies? Why, Mark, why, oh why, would you do this to us?
Well, for one reason, I love animated movies and I think these are fun movies to watch. These are movies that one wouldn’t think would make one think, but they do, in fact, make one think and they especially display one incredibly important lesson: moving into a new stage of life.
Life is full of stages and in Western society - or perhaps in developed nations in general - we tend to fail to recognize these stages. This is probably partly because we have done away with almost all of the rituals that were performed by our ancestors to celebrate each of these stages.
And what is the stage of life that Cars and Cars 3 emphasize? Elderhood.
Well, okay, perhaps that’s an odd word to use. Let’s go with “Mentorship” instead.
The main character of the Cars movie series is a rather type-A personality vehicle known as Lightning McQueen. In the first movie, McQueen is self-obsessed, arrogant and doesn’t believe that he needs anyone’s help nor companionship to succeed in life.
When McQueen becomes stranded in the small town of Radiator Springs he begins to learn valuable lessons in humility and friendship and he makes a rather startling and sudden turn-around in how he views his life.
Now, while McQueen is certainly the protagonist on his Hero’s Journey in Cars, I want to wait to focus on him, because the most interesting character in Cars is actually Doc Hudson. Doc Hudson is important here because the common theme between these movies and the spiritual element I wish to discuss today is what I’m going to call The Reluctant Mentor syndrome.
An hour into the first Cars movie Lightning McQueen discovers that the grouchy and stern Doc Hudson of Radiator Springs is actually an old racer from the 50s who was known as the Hudson Hornet - one of McQueen’s idols.
However, Doc Hudson is not happy about McQueen making this discovery. Shortly after winning his third major championship, Hudson had a bad crash and, by his explanation, was forced into very early retirement. If you read-between-the-lines, it is fairly obvious that this is not the case. The real problem was that Hudson became bitter at the lack of support he received from the racing society. He was jealous of the young and upcoming racers, so instead of working hard and proving he could continue a race career, even in some other capacity (such as mentorship), the Hudson Hornet ran and hid in a sleepy town under the guise of Doc Hudson.
What we have here in Doc Hudson’s character is a case of an incomplete Hero’s Journey and our society is full of people like this today. I have met and/or known so many people in the last few decades who are stuck in cycles of bitterness or resentment or who simply refuse to pass on their wealth of knowledge to a younger generation. These people feel like the world still owes them something or that they aren’t “done yet” or that the world is going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket so why should they try to make it any better?
So many people today complain about the younger generations, but we have problems with the younger generations because the elder generations have refused their roles as mentors and instead leave their own Hero’s Journeys incomplete and live in their same patterns of behaviour and hang onto their torches instead of passing them to the next runners.
The point of taking a Hero’s Journey is to complete it and once you complete it, a new Hero’s Journey awaits you: that is what the stages of life, or of existence, are. Each stage is a Hero’s Journey to take and learn from and then you take what you have learned and pass it onto the person coming behind you.
Now, I know that it sounds like I was just really picking on elder generations there and to some extent I am, but that does not mean that younger generations are innocent, nor does it give them an excuse. You cannot complain and say that you weren’t mentored, so why should we bother trying?
Well, that’s where learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do. As younger generations, we can determine to not make the same mistakes as our elders and we can do our best to pass on what we have learned to the generations that are coming after us, because someday we are going to be the elder generations.
We are all getting older, folks. We all have to accept that we are always in the process of passing from one stage of life to another and that the final stage will be the dying stage at which point we must bow out of the race entirely.
And acceptance of these transitions and stages in life is, happily what Doc Hudson learns by the end of Cars when he once again takes up the mantle of the Hudson Hornet and becomes Lightning McQueen’s crew chief.
In Cars 2 we discover that Hudson helped McQueen win 3 Piston Cup Championships before dying, but let’s not talk about that bizarre and somewhat pointless sequel. It’s really a pretty basic message of friendship and of being yourself.
No, instead let’s get into the meat of Cars 3 which focuses on Lightning McQueen discovering that he too must pass the torch to the next generation as well.
And really, Cars 3 starts out showing what happens when the next generation begins to take over in a particular industry or sport. New technologies and new thinking quickly push the previous generation out of the limelight and leave them struggling to keep up. I understand that this is not necessarily a good thing either, but it is the way of nature, so let’s see what we can learn from it.
This struggle with the new generation eventually pushes Lightning McQueen into over-exerting himself and he has a potentially career-ending, and almost life-ending, crash.
As he recovers and tries to get himself back into racing shape, McQueen meets a young racing trainer named Cruz Ramirez. Now, there are two sides to McQueen’s and Ramirez’s relationship and there is a lesson that we can all learn here: the obvious one being that the older generations have a lot to teach the younger generations and they should wise up and listen.
However, the younger generations also have a lot to teach the older generations when it comes to new ways of thinking and doing things and especially when it comes to the use of and applications for new technologies. McQueen learns this the hard way when he doesn’t listen to Ramirez and gets on a new racing simulator against her advice when she says he isn’t ready for it. And she’s right. McQueen ends up destroying the simulator because he isn’t familiar with the technology and he’s too stubborn and impatient to learn it properly.
Throughout this movie McQueen really is quite stubborn and impatient and he displays a lot of his former self-obsession and arrogance. We do have to remember that he is a very Type-A personality, but we also know that he is a good Hero and that he is ultimately teachable.
A seed is planted in McQueen’s mind when he ends up in Doc Hudson’s old raceway town and meets Smokey, Hudson’s trainer and friend. During this time Hudson’s old friends tell McQueen and Ramirez stories of Hudson’s racing days and his crazy antics. McQueen laments and wishes that he could have seen Doc Hudson wild and happy like he was back then.
Smokey then takes McQueen to a garage. He says that he hadn’t heard from Hudson in over fifty years, but then letters started showing up and it is here, in this garage, where we finally see Doc Hudson’s Hero’s Journey come into full bloom. It turns out that Hudson sent Smokey letters full of pride and joy about how much he loved mentoring McQueen. That bitter old Hornet had finally discovered his bliss and he died a happy car though he didn’t show it much on the outside.
Why is this amazing message in a kid movie? Not that I’m complaining. I’m glad it’s out there somewhere, but the people who need to hear this message probably aren’t paying the slightest bit of attention to this movie.
Well, I guess that’s why I’m here. On we go.
McQueen starts training with Smokey, but I think all the while he is questioning what his new role in life really is. Even his typical pre-race, self-pep-talk becomes a question when he says:
“Speed. I am...speed?”
He knows he’s not “speed” because there are faster cars on the track than he is. So, what is he now? Who is he now? We all have to ask ourselves these questions when we enter a new stage of life. Yes, we are the same person, but we are also different. The world is different.
“Always in motion is the future.”
Halfway through his last race - his big comeback race - McQueen has an epiphany and realizes that Ramirez is a younger and better racer than he is anymore. He sees the racer in her even when no one else can. After a bit of confusion he gets her to take his place on the track - according to Piston Cup rules, the number is what matters, not who is wearing the number - and in this switchover we very much see a literal “passing the torch” or “passing the baton” moment as Ramirez begins her first race and McQueen takes up the role as crew chief. The Hero has become the Mentor.
Though he was reluctant at first, Lightning McQueen has come full-circle and begun a new Hero’s Journey and his life and the lives of those surrounding him will be that much better for it. He won’t become the bitter old cynic nor the callous, jealous curmudgeon. Though he has stepped out of the limelight his star will continue to shine because he knows that the true value of living comes from within and from enabling those around you to be their best Self as well.
And there we have it once again, dear Listeners: the deeply spiritual, emotional, and important life lessons that I believe we can all learn from the animated films Cars and Cars 3.
As always, I would love to see, hear, and read your thoughts and comments: positive or negative.
I have been your host, Mark, this has been another Examining the Spiritual Elements of Movies episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts and I firmly and truly believe that if you change your Self and accept the stages of life as they come upon you and eventually take up the Mantle of Mentorship in whatever capacity you can, that you will, without a doubt, change your world into the best world it can be.
I’ll see you on the next episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.
Change your Self; change your World.