Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cars 2 (2011)

I'll be blunt: Cars 2 is not the Death Of Pixar that everyone is proclaiming it to be. Nor is it the Sin Against Nature that it's been claimed to be as well. It's not necessarily great, but it's still more charming and all-around better than a lot of other movies this year.

In this film, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) leaves Radiator Springs to participate in the World Grand Prix, an international race featuring the fastest cars in the world (including an Italian voiced by John Turturro). The race was founded to support Allinol, a new alternative fuel developed by eccentric billionaire Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). Meanwhile, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is brought along much to McQueen's reluctance, and soon finds himself embroiled in a spy adventure, as he's recruited by Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to bring down the nefarious Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) before he succeeds in a nefarious plot.

Cars 2 is, honestly, a necessary film in the Pixar filmography. Let's suppose, for a second, that Pixar is the studio-as-auteur, an argument that can be backed up with the studio's films' emotional tone and simple, universal stories, with a lack of pop culture references (or at least not a dominance of them). If this is true, then, as with all auteurs, a failure was inevitable. In Pixar's case, not only was it inevitable, it's already happened with the original Cars.

Yes, that's right, world, Pixar has made a less-than-stellar film before. The big problem here is that the sequel was unnecessary, and made the mistake that most make when doing a sequel: it's bloated by excess, the need to make everything bigger and leaving behind what made the original work to begin with. Cars didn't have the emotional heart, delightful characters, or complex relationships that have become Pixar's trademark, but it did succeed in a nostalgia for off-the-highway America, where small towns are still worth checking out and are still essential to the fabric of our country. Even that sort of thematic idea is missing from Cars 2, which doesn't seem to have too many ideas of its own. It's almost paint-by-numbers, with every new plot turn easily visible as the film, much like a NASCAR race, simply goes in circles hoping that we're entertained.

It doesn't help that the film has hitched itself to it's two weakest elements: the spy plot and Larry the Cable Guy. Mater is a goofball, and is ok in small, carefully planned portions, but letting him run amok through the film only diminishes and annoys. That's to say nothing of Larry's very limited acting range; even vocally, he fails to convey the emotions that are clearly represented visually. Mater may want to be considered something more than foolish, but with Larry as his voice, that won't be happening anytime soon.

The spy plot doesn't come off well either. It was only a matter of time before Pixar introduced a spy element to one of its films, considering how many genres they've already covered. Unfortunately, this one is very boring, with very little truly exciting spy elements and not even very much action. That's to say nothing of the third act, which devolves from James Bond wannabe to bad episode of Scooby-Doo. Trust me, you'll see the Big Bad coming a mile away.

So what does work? Give Owen Wilson credit, he does give a certain laid-back, easy-to-love quality to McQueen, and even shows a bit of his malicious side in his fight with Mater. He's easily the best character in the group, and he does win you over. The racing scenes (though populated with "foreigners have funny accents!" humor) are well-shot (co-directors John Lasseter, who directed the original, and Brad Lewis show a visual flair for racing), and some are rather thrilling, such as the one in Porto Corsa. And, of course, there's the immaculate animation that Pixar has become known for, detailed to the point of the reflections in the cars' windows being properly distorted. It's certainly a pretty film, if nothing else.

If you're concerned about Pixar's reputation, don't worry too much: the film will still make bank, and even Spielberg made Hook. Many people, myself included, didn't think Cars 2 was the best idea for a film, but it'll hopefully serve as a lesson learned for the studio. We all have to fail sometimes, and if you really think about, it could have been a whole lot worse. B-


Jose said...

The animation is breathtaking but Mater made me want to throw a bomb at the screen, he's so annoying!

Jason H. said...

When you cast Larry the Cable Guy in your movie, you reap what you sow.