I have the highest respect for Pixar. They understand story telling better than most.
A key part to good story telling is polarized characters. Each character must be different. But this difference must be consistent throughout the film. How does Pixar do it? They anchor their main characters in a personality color.
A “red” typically thinks they can do things better than anyone else. They love to compete. They want to be the best. They have ZERO hesitation in pursuing the impossible. Reds are typically driven, highly successful people. Think Steve Jobs. Sylvester Stallone. Michael Jordan and… Lightning McQueen.
When CARS 1 opens, we see ROOKIE McQueen knocking his place into racing history. His eyes are set on winning the PISTON CUP. It’s been his life long goal. Is he nervous? Not in the least. He’s got this.
The extreme confidence of a Red is a requirement to do what they do best: Succeed.
All gifts can have an equally powerful dark side. A Red can suffer from unchecked arrogance. It’s easy for them to place both themselves and their goals ahead of everything else. But conversely, their extreme confidence is a requirement to do what they do best: Succeed.
What does this mean? As with all things, a balance must be discovered.
At the opening of CARS, Lightning McQueen hasn’t found this balance. He has ZERO gratitude for his pit crew. In fact they quit 5 minutes into the film. Does McQueen care? Not one bit. It’s a one car show for him. He’s a flawed protagonist.
Let me step away from personality colors for just a moment: The entire point of any film isn’t the explosions, epic battle sequences, troubled relationships or hilarious comedy. It’s about watching a hero’s journey to a better place. We start with a flawed character (or characters) and watch them change for the better — Unless a film is designed to end dark.
The entire point of a film isn’t the explosions, fights and comedy. It’s about a hero’s journey to a better place.
In DIE HARD we have an arrogant cop with a marriage on the rocks. In JAWS the hero is a sheriff who fears what people think of him. In JERRY MAGUIRE we have a sports agent who doesn’t know how to care about people. In PARADISE STRIKES we have a hero who doesn’t know how to handle fear. CARS shows us an arrogant race car who needs to learn to care about others.
Building on the above, when a film begins it has two imperative tasks:
1) Show us a flawed protagonist
2) Make us care.
But how do you make an audience care about a hero with issues? It’s a fine line.
Pixar executes with precision (as usual) in two basic steps:
1) They show us Lightning McQueen’s talent. He’s fast. He can maneuver like no one else. He’s confident. An audience automatically likes someone with talent, brains, dreams, etc. Think THE MATRIX (smart/The One). Think JERRY MAGUIRE (confident and successful). ROCKY (dreamer/underdog). Think every film you’ve ever seen.
2) They show us someone who’s worse. Pixar ensures we side with McQueen by making one of the other cars a very bad character. He’s not just arrogant, he’s horribly mean. He’ll put lives in danger to get what he wants. This makes us think McQueen isn’t all that bad. In fact, we’re already hoping our shiny new hero will take this other guy out.
So what’s next? Our hero must change.
Change always begins with bumps in the road. For Lightning McQueen change begins in RADIATOR SPRINGS. An entire town of B story characters awaits to help him on his journey.
If you don’t know what B Story means, check out our blog post about film structure. B story characters often support the theme or spiritual journey of a film. They also simply help the hero. Think the police officer outside the building in DIE HARD. Trinity in THE MATRIX. Juba in GLADIATOR.
Remember: Lightning McQueen’s spiritual journey is to learn to care about something besides himself. Life isn’t just about reaching a goal. It’s about people. This is a universal problem that Reds can face. Pixar is telling a story that the world can relate to on either end of the issue.
In CARS, Sally and Doc are the primary chisels used to change McQueen for the better. Sally’s a BLUE personality color (and ironically Pixar made her blue in color). Sally’s also the love interest, which is common with a B story character.
Unlike reds, a blue naturally values people and relationships more than success. Where a red is a one car show, a blue is all about community and team. Sally challenges McQueen’s self focus. She challenges his lack of care. But she does it gently. McQueen’s eyes begin to open.
DOC, or as we find out later, the HUDSON HORNET is an embittered RED who has his own lessons to learn. He’s not gentle at all because, you guessed it, he’s also a flawed Red!
There’s a classic scene where Doc asks McQueen to name the last time he’s thought about anything but himself. Lightning McQueen stops to think, and then the realization hits — he only thinks about himself all the time. Then McQueen fires at Doc, accusing him of being a selfish person too. Doc can’t handle the truth, and drives away in a fury.
Pixar kept the theme of the story consistent: Two Reds, at radically different stages in life, need to learn the same lesson.
There isn’t time in this blog post to examine all the details Pixar stuck into their masterpiece. But they crammed CARS full of Red personality traits.
Let’s just jump to the third act of the film:
The 3rd act of any film is where a hero actually changes — all the way. In Act 2 a hero makes the first decision to head to a better place (specifically at the midpoint of a film). However, just like real life, people don’t change overnight, or with a single decision. It’s a journey! So the rest of any movie is all about the continued change that needs to take place.
For Lightning McQueen, the big decision that demonstrated his change was giving up the race to help a car in need. McQueen sacrificed the most important thing in his life. Why? Because it wasn’t the most important thing anymore. Lightning McQueen is now a changed and balanced Red.
Pixar excels at not just entertainment, but at showing all of us lessons that we need to learn.
CARS is a beautiful, entertaining lesson about the importance of putting others first in life. Pixar excels at not just entertainment, but at showing all of us lessons that we need to learn. Read up on the Red personality color and then watch CARS again. There is SO MUCH that Pixar has put in the story that again, I just can’t go into here. But you’ll love discovering each example.
The Apostle Paul also wrote to Reds in his letter to the church at Corinth:
“Reds, if your faith is so powerful that you can move mountains, but you don’t have love, it simply doesn’t matter.” Read more here.
Pixar keeps Lightning McQueen consistent in each installment of CARS. Even though he learned some big lessons in the first film, he’s still not perfect. McQueen continues to learn various lessons in different ways. These lessons are still consistent with his color.
There’s a scene in CARS 3 I want to mention that is a classic Red / Yellow example: Lightning McQueen has a trainer who is both yellow in personality color and physical color (again, right on the nose!) This Yellow trainer has just confessed to Lightning that she’s always wanted to race, but didn’t have the courage. She then asks the killer question:
Yellow: How did you know you could do it?
Lightning: I don’t know, I guess I just never thought I couldn’t.
Yellow: I wish I knew what that felt like.
See how classic this is??? Reds always think they can do it! And when not tied to arrogance, this is the killer foundation that makes them climb any mountain. A Yellow doesn’t (by default) have this type of confidence. But you guessed it, in CARS 3 they show us a Yellow who learns it, and a Red who yet again, needs to learn what’s most important in life.
Thanks for reading. Read up on the red personality color and then watch CARS again. Pay attention to every detail — you’ll love the ride.