Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Cars 2: Racing Beyond the Cynicism

One could almost imagine the metaphorical arm-twisting that occurred between Disney CEO Robert Iger and Pixar chief John Lasseter, that ultimately resulted in the making of Cars 2.  Beyond the Toy Story films, Pixar has always been generally against sequel-driven inspirations (unlike say, Dreamworks), but Iger, a stalwart believer in franchising, apparently convinced John and company otherwise. Thus Cars 2 arrived in theaters this past summer.  It certainly succeeded commercially but, unusual for Pixar, it was savaged by mainstream critics and not entirely beloved by audiences.  I must with some shame admit that I was not wholly immune to the cynicism that surrounded Cars 2; I skipped it at the multiplex, preferring to wait for its home entertainment release, which occurs this week.

It is certainly difficult to praise the film on any level without appearing to be an Iger/Lasseter apologist.  The film was, after all, created to support a still incredibly lucrative billion dollar toy business, a pedigree that is difficult at best to overlook.  But one cannot also overlook high standards of Pixar craftsmanship and creative energies, and Cars 2 is distinctly infused with both.  Strip away all of the movie's aforementioned external baggage and what is left?  A fun couple of hours, beautifully rendered and well realized, and certainly entertaining. 

Pixar often takes its cues from retro-based themes and in Cars 2 it milks 1960s spy films for inspiration.  Mater takes center stage but his presence is thankfully and necessarily diffused by new characters Finn McMissle and Holley Shiftwell, automobile incarnations of super spies in the James Bond mold.  Lightning McQueen is relegated to a third string supporting player while the rest of the Radiator Springs gang fades even further into the background.  The action is fast and furious; the humor, while never subtle is rarely overdone.  The visuals are spectacular and often eye-popping.  Pixar eye candy remains unmatched in contemporary CG animation.  While it does not break any new ground, neither does it disappoint to the degree many have suggested.  It appears that many critics and viewers are not willing to extend Pixar the same benefit of the doubt they typically show to non-Pixar franchises such as Shrek, Ice Age and Kung Fu Panda.

In keeping with recent Disney DVD packaging/marketing misfires, the non-3D Blu-ray set is a bare bones affair, devoid of extras beyond the Toy Story short Hawaiian Vacation, a Mater's Tall Tale entry, and a director's commentary.  The Mater short, Air Mater, is a not-so subtle introduction to the upcoming direct-to-DVD spinoff Planes, produced by Disney Toon Studios.


Zack said...

What is bad for Pixar is having made so many good movies. I liked Cars 2 but it isn't as good as Wall-e or Up or others. Critics tend to compare it to them instead of looking at the merits of the film itself. In the end it may not have the heart of Toy Story 3 but it is still a fun time.

David said...

The problem with Cars 2 -like the first one- was a more obvious attempt to exploit merchandising and demographic revenue streams towards the NASCAR fans who seem to be confused by deeper storytelling. Still, maybe this what Pixar has to do get their more complicated scripts made. This was how Clint Eastwood got Warner Bros. to make the films he really wanted to do, like Bird and Unforgiven, when he was transitioning more to a director than an actor. He would do a high profile film, like another Dirty Harry or something that is all action and less story, which would make money, then the WB would finance his smaller films, ones that did not usually pack the multiplexs.

The sequel to the original will also tie-in with the new Cars ride at Disneyland that will open next year. More toys, more money.

I'm guessing, Pixar finds themselves in this same sort of position. Wall-e was a huge risk for the spread-sheet mentality that runs these publicly traded companies. Its about the shareholders and not about the audience.

Maybe I'm thinking too much here, but it is not that far out of the realm of believability that Pixar will have to make sequels to certain films (I'm guessing we'll see a Cars 3 somewhere in the future)if only to be able to make more complex stories.

But the funny part is, neither Cars or Cars 2 appears to be that huge of success compared to the Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, Wall-e, Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc. (which is getting a sequel -or prequel- as well)

So maybe, in the end, its okay to make a Cars 3, which can be ignored by Pixar fans like me, knowing a richer, more satisfying animated movie will come down the line.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I must not see what others don't. My kids love of Cars far exceeded Wall-E, Up, or Toy 3. We could not wait to get this movie added to our personal collection. I must also not be as cynical because I do not take 'points' from my enjoyment of a movie because the company makes $$$. We would not even have this conversation if Walt did not make sequels to the three little pigs financing the original studios and snow white.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone had to twist Lasseter's arm. He clearly loves the world of Cars that he and Pixar has built. He has happily gone back to it in Car Toons, came up with Planes for direct-to-DVD, and is totally psyched to build a land in California. So, let's stop saying that Lasseter needed any convincing to make another Cars film. He was psyched.

And I think his love for the world and characters may be why the movie is a clunker. I think he saw more story there than there was. And he came in late as the director, as the original director didn't get the story together. I think by that point, it was a scramble to make a release date and so compromises were made. Who knows for sure.

Anonymous: Cars 2 is one of the least successful films financially, from a pure box office standpoint. Only A Bug's Life made less, but it's the very bottom once you adjust for ticket price inflation and 3D surcharges. I'm not saying it doesn't make up that money elsewhere (merchandise, etc.), but people aren't giving this movie a hard time because it made money. They're giving it a hard time because it's not a good movie. I love popcorn movies as much as the next guy, but this movie fails even at that. It's an endless barrage of images and nonsense. Why exactly are all the citizens of Radiator Springs in the middle of Europe at the end of the film? Is eco-fuel good or bad? Who knows--and why should we even be thinking about it? I felt exhausted as I left the theater, and I didn't really remember much about it an hour later. It's just a big, beautifully rendered mess.