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When my son was younger, he spent a lot of pocket money on Lego mini-figures. These sought-after little people, about the size of an adult thumb, came in surprise packages and portrayed various characters, professions or types. We had a gangster, a genie, a mechanic and a royal guard in a busby. I suppose the toys were collected mainly by boys, but I couldn't help noticing how few female figures there were.

I guess Lego noticed, too, because it seemed that gradually, as the company released series upon series, a few more women crept into the mix. My son accepted them readily – the "kimono girl" was a real prize and a female skateboarder was greeted enthusiastically as a skateboarder – but they felt like grudging additions on Lego's part.

At best, the girls made up a quarter of any given series and with amusement I would picture the guys in some Danish design lab scratching their heads.

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"We had a cheerleader and a nurse. Goddamn it, Magnus, what else do women do?" The designer who figured out that you could match the caveman with a cavewoman and the Scottish chieftain with a female warrior must have earned himself a hefty raise.

In popular culture, there are a lot of these fictional worlds where women appear as occasional members of some exotic minority rather than ubiquitous examples of half the population.

In its stubborn and prolonged anthropomorphization of the automobile, Disney's Cars franchise has struggled to find a place for female characters in a project whose chief motivation is surely to sell toys to boys.

This excuse for more Lego – I keep thinking maybe I could sell some of those old sets on Kijiji – also produces female characters at the rate of about one for every four males in the Cars series.

These are mainly minor figures such as the showy Flo, owner of the local café and tattoo parlour, but there is also one central female character, the lawyer Sally Carrera. She's a baby-blue Porsche Carrera with class and brains who provides a low-key love interest for the hero, the red racing car named Lightning McQueen.

So, at least Sally is not powder pink with inflated lips and spider-leg eyelashes. It's progress, I guess, but she was largely written out of the male-dominated spy plot of Cars 2.

With the new Cars 3, Sally reappears from time to time, but there is a new and more important female character: Cruz Ramirez is Lightning's chipper new trainer and a bright-yellow sports coupe.

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To return the victorious Lightning to the underdog status he enjoyed in the first film, the screenwriters have produced a bunch of obnoxious new second-gen racing cars all ready to eat him for lunch.

Maybe it really is time for Lightning to retire. (At last, a plot to which the dozy grown-ups can relate!) Cruz's job is to get Lightning revved up again using all the newfangled training tricks, including a racing simulator that the old guy promptly crashes, providing the film's most genuinely funny moment. Of course, it turns out that Lightning can also teach Cruz a thing or two on a real track as she suddenly reveals her own thwarted ambition to race.

Is Cars ready to hand the franchise over to a female character?

The trouble with this outing is that Cruz is not a compelling figure. She's introduced as an ebullient cheerleader with – like many a trainer – a hint of sadism beneath the rah-rah attitude.

Then suddenly, she morphs into a fragile underachiever who needs Lightning to provide her big break.

Perhaps that's a humanly plausible contradiction that the screenwriters might like to explore in an adult drama; in a kids' cartoon, it only creates a character whose behaviour is inconsistent.

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As voiced by Owen Wilson, Lightning is the classic Hollywood good guy, affable and determined, Jimmy Stewart on racing slicks.

And Cruz is? Well, she's bubbly but she actually lacks self-confidence; she's a successful professional, but ... .

In other words, she's undergoing a transformation that is mainly a convenience of plot, and if Cristela Alonzo fails to produce a figure identifiable enough she can be summarized by a toy, it's more the fault of the script than her voice work.

Cruz just feels like tokenism, another ill-conceived female character insufficiently integrated into a world imagined by men who have difficulty seeing women as normative.

Hollywood can do better.

The standard to match here is Daisy Ridley, keeping it real in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as she plays the spunky, no-nonsense warrior Rey – a character and a performance powerful enough to inherit the Force.

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Meanwhile, Warner's DC Extended Universe just got a shot in the arm from Gal Gadot's interpretation of an idealistic Amazon in Wonder Woman, striding across First World War battlefields like a latter-day Joan of Arc.

In contrast, the confusing Cruz character looks like a dead end for Cars.

This summer, sales of Wonder Woman action figures may yet lay to rest industry wisdom that female characters sell less merch; certainly, the real test for Cars and that little yellow coupe lies not at the multiplex but at the toy store.

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