Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard, Jason Issacs, Thomas Kretschmann
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 24 Jun 2011 (General release); 2011)
While $68 million is nothing to sneeze at, we somehow expect more from Pixar. Indeed, when Cars 2 hit theaters over the 24 June weekend (to the worst reviews in the company’s history, mind you), audiences and fans figured that, no matter the underwhelming trailer and lack of Messageboard buzz, the production house responsible for some of the last decade’s most beloved CG animated films would not fail. They couldn’t. After all, all grousing aside, Pixar had produced 11 previous examples of entertainment excellence, why couldn’t they make it an even dozen? The answer, sadly, is currently clamoring for your child’s undivided marketing magic attention. As the first Pixar title to more or less pander to the kids who buy billions in tie-in merchandise, the results speak for themselves.
Of course, in hindsight, the reasons for the failure are fully on display. Every inch of this 3D extravaganza is coated in blatant commercial leanings. Where the last few years have seen the studio striving for art, Cars 2 caters almost exclusive to the bottom line. Now, there is nothing outwardly wrong with wanting to create a cheerful and fun mainstream motion picture. Hollywood can and has done it more than once. But there are at least five issues with this film that doomed it from the start, that no amount of computer generated polish could cover up. While some may disagree with these analytical conclusions, one thing is certain - Cars 2 is destined to go down as the title that broke Pixar’s perfect record. Here are some possible reasons why:
(1) A Suspect Source
The original Cars was based in a love of American automobile culture and its roots in such nostalgic myths as Route 66. It was director John Lasseter’s homage to the fuel-injected country he grew up in, and the use of current lynchpin link NASCAR was a stroke of genius. It was a small story that focused on redemption and revitalization, with some comedy and heart tossed in. Yet because of its anthropomorphized vehicle conceit and simplistic character design, fans found it to be the most “cartoony” of all the Pixar films. Even as later works like Finding Nemo played with the balance of reality and artifice, Cars was seen as calculated kiddie fodder. Once the trailer was released for the more or less unnecessary follow-up, people’s worst fear about the potential “franchise” were realized.
(2) Too Much Mater
As a stand-up comic, Larry the Cable Guy has a firm national following. He’s not necessarily an A-list comedian, but he does command a great deal of mid-level celebrity attention. Sadly, said fame has yet to translate into a cinematic triumph. His movies - Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Delta Farce, and Witless Protection - have been true duds and he has proven time and time again that he can’t carry a film. As a sidekick (as he was in the original Cars), he was quite funny and charming. But here, he is made the lead, the lackluster center of a slapstick take on international espionage, and as he illustrated before, he just can’t command the center. Mr. Cable Guy is clearly destined for a career as solid second banana. Cars 2 shows that when you overdose on one thing - especially something already proven ineffective to begin with - you’re destined to fail.
(3) Chaos Instead of Character
The one thing Pixar always excelled at, no matter the format, was story and character. All of their films found their excellence in thinking of who (or what) we will be introduced to and how that will play out, narratively. Wall-E‘s end of the world robot romance or Ratatouille‘s little mouse chef that could offer simple set-ups with easy to celebrate personalities in the lead. Things then build from there. But in the case of Cars 2, it’s all smoke and mirrors. The story - about an eco-friendly biofuel, a criminal conspiracy against it, and a Grand Prix race in the middle, is just too busy, too built out of incongruous parts to offer that certified Pixar organic flow. Here, it’s all about the action scenes and mindless eye candy - and if there is one thing that this company has never been about, it’s pointless spectacle.
(4) It’s a Sequel
In general, sequels don’t work. Granted, Pixar bucked the trend when they managed to turn the about to go direct to video Toy Story 2 into a format landmark. They then did the same with Toy Story 3. So the company has had success at the seemingly redundant follow-up. Unfortunately, Cars 2 commits the unthinkable. Instead of expanding the mythology, taking what we loved before and tweaking it, it simply ignores the original and rewrites the entire premise. Again, the first film was about recognizing your roots, realizing your potential, and appreciating the things from the past within the present. Cars 2 is about silly spy games splashed around a flimsy false premise. We don’t see the story of Radiator Springs post-fame. We don’t get more issues with Lightning McQueen and his lack of appreciation. Instead, it’s like a totally different movie, like an Incredibles follow-up focusing on Jack-Jack’s babysitter.
(5) Unrealistic Expectations
Let’s face it - no company has had the run that Pixar has had. They have managed over the course of their time in the industry to rack up several solid hits, a few outright phenomenons, a bevy of Oscar consideration (and wins), and a track record that speaks for that most elusive of entertainment ideals - perfection. Even those who argue over the original Cars and A Bug’s Life as the company’s “worst” acknowledge those titles overall superiority to the rest of the CG animation genre. In this case, however, Pixar is now suffering a backlash that is a byproduct of its own success. People had certain expectations regarding Cars 2, with or without the questionable source. It looks like those lofty beliefs were beyond the creator’s, or their content’s, control.