[9 November 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We all knew it had to happen someday. Pixar, the animation company known for its flawless track record of CG animated perfection had to deliver a turkey eventually. No matter how talented or terrific at what they do, they had to make a major misstep somewhere along the line. Some believe it already happened with A Bug’s Life, while others offer up the Route 66 revisionism of Cars. Now, after the ascending brilliance of Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, the company has finally stumbled. Responding to the marketing boom that is their anthropomorphized automobiles (never a good starting point for art), the company has fashioned a foolish spy spoof onto the back of a basic two hour commercial for goofy cartoon Hot Wheels. Cars 2 (now out on Blu-ray) is not without its entertainment value and moments of merriment. It’s just not worthy of the Pixar name.
Indeed, this film plays like a dozen other CG derivatives. It’s Ice Age with the dinosaurs acting like James Bond, or Shrek where our big green ogre suddenly stumbles into an uneven eco-terrorism plot. Between the elephantine expansion in the cast (we now have new vehicles, new relationships, and a sweeping aside of past favorites) to the noisy, nonsensical plot contrivances, we end up with something akin to those silly espionage capers from the 1960s - like the mindless Marty Allen, Steve Rossi vehicle The Last of the Secret Agents? - except with everyone’s favorite redneck tow truck, Mater, in the role of 007 (which, by the way, is indicative of the movie’s IQ level).
When his buddy Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is challenged by an snooty Italian Formula One racer (John Turturro) to participate in the World Grand Prix, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and the rest of the noted NASCAR’s pit head to Japan. There, our rusty hero clashes with British Intelligence Agents Finn McMissle (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) and comes into possession of a valuable piece of Top Secret information. Seems race sponsor Sir Miles Alexrod (Eddie Izzard) is trying to introduce his new renewable fuel, Allinol, to the marketplace, but some sinister cabal is trying to prevent its adoption. With an inconclusive image to go on and members of the contest flaming out for unexplained reasons, it is up to Mater and his new pals to discover who’s behind the sabotage and put a stop to it before McQueen falls victim to the plot.
Cars 2 was clearly created for those invested in the entire toy aisle tenets of the first film. This is a movie made for kids who grew up on tiny tin versions of their favorite vehicles, a group outside the often adult reach of a typical Pixar experience. Now, there is nothing wrong with skewing younger, addressing the often puzzled looks of parents as their ankle biters bear witness to loss, bleak future shock isolation, and the occasional saccharine nods to nostalgia. This is pure Disney driven fodder, pandering in place of carefully plotted narratives and a flawless combination of content and the character. Director John Lasseter can argue all he wants to about Cars 2 serious subtext, but for the most part, this is a box of filmic fireworks just waiting for the demo to put on their 3D glasses and light the fuse.
Frankly, we expect (and typically receive) more from Pixar. We expect to be blown away, not mildly amused. We expect big ideas and vast creative canvases, not product placement or even more cynical long term merchandising tie-ins. Of course, the argument can be made that the studio needs the commercial to fuel its often difficult and deep flights of fancy, and that for every 10 masterpieces we will tolerate one (or two) big dumb blockbuster-wannabes. But even then, Cars 2 feels like something that should have been reserved for a sunny Summer premiere on the Disney Channel. It just can’t compete with the product the studio has been churning out since…well, since the last time Lightning McQueen took up residence in Radiator Springs.
Part of the problem is turning Mater into our main protagonist. As a sidekick, he provided a great deal of down home comic geniality. In the lead, it’s just a lame Larry the Cable Guy project with the stand-up hidden behind some carefully constructed computer graphics. It’s a digital Rover Dangerfield, except without that film’s frequent attempts at heart. Because he is loud, obnoxious, and dim to a fault, Cars 2 becomes a reflection of same. Situations that would have previously been reworked to combine mystery and fun are now just allowed to play out in patterns of stunted slapstick. Instead of arguing for the value in friendships or embracing people from the past, this movie celebrates blowing stuff up and ludicrous leaps of narrative logic.
Granted, there are some elements that remind us of what Pixar does best. The whole “Lemon Gang” idea is excellent, since it fits well within the franchise’s fetishized car culture conceits. Similarly, the inventive ways the automobiles get around certain human pragmatics (the slightly scatological ‘bathroom’ sequence for one) show the invention the company is known for. Also the majority of the voice work is nice, staying within the “no stunt casting” ideal established early on. Even someone as blatant as Michael Caine seems to fit in. What’s missing then is that certain spark, that moment when a movie like The Incredibles or Finding Nemo turns from stellar entertainment into a certain cinematic statement. Yes, the cars are cute running around playing spy games. But there should be more to our sense of satisfaction than filling up on eye candy.
Since it was inevitable, the cost to Pixar’s perceived perfection will probably be minimal. Those continuing to pilot the bandwagon for the studio will argue a combination of misguided expectations and limited ambitions - and they will probably be right. After the Beatles built an empire out of pure pop song precision, they were forgiven for a few “Revolution #9"s. In this case, Lasseter and company can get away with making one for the mainstream, so to speak. Hopefully, it’s an anomaly, not the shape of things to come. There are few things as ‘sure’ as Pixar. Cars 2 threatens that reputation - at least, temporarily.