“Review: Cars 2, A Tale of Two Screenings”

06/27/2011

I’m going to start with the very first thing that went through my mind after the lights went up at the Cars 2 midnight premier last weekend: “the streak,” whatever it was, is officially over. That magical aura of invincibility that seemed to shield Pixar from the soulless vacuum that is the big budget film industry was, if not destroyed entirely, temporarily damaged. After one of the most impressive sprees in 20th century entertainment, the studio responsible for Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Up has finally shown weakness, proving even they couldn’t make a good movie starring Larry the Cable Guy. And worst of all, the moldy corners of Cars 2 seem located on what is usually Pixar’s bread and butter: the story. Perhaps the posterboys for artistic integrity finally cracked under the increasing pressures of merchandising; developing a film to sell more action figures, setting it overseas to appeal to foreign markets, dumbing it down to make it easier to sell to the kids, and forgoing story and passion for an easy buck. Maybe the studio that built itself from the ground up for the last twenty-five years on the principle of quality above all else finally did something completely counter-directive to their nature, and if so, what hope do any of the rest of us have?

And with that in mind, I absolutely had to see the movie again the next day, this time at a 4:00 matinee with my four and six year old siblings in tow. And maybe it was merely my lowered expectations, but I enjoyed the film a lot more. Once “the streak” was no longer an issue, I could accept Carts 2 for what it was. It wasn’t a masterpiece. It was deeply flawed, and I didn’t feel obligated to like it. But you know what? I kind of did. And suddenly I didn’t feel like John Lasseter and co. had to necessarily sell out to make such a film. It’s amazing how answers present themselves when you’re of sound mind and it’s not 3 in the morning. Maybe the film’s international angle had more to do with defining this film apart from its predecessor, and the simpler plot simply worked better with that premise. And maybe the placement of Mater as the film’s lead was a genuine, if a bit miscalculated, attempt to broaden a universe most adults could care less about seeing more of. I could live with that.

Cars 2 is the story of Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), that supporting character from the original Cars who we all thought could grow wearisome (if he already wasn’t) if given any more screen time. Mater is unlikely best friends with famous racing car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), and like every social outcast befriended by a kindly, unsuspecting cool kid, he is milking this relationship for everything it’s worth. When McQueen returns from the Piston Cup Circuit, Mater expects that they will spend all their time together (he’s even disappointed when McQueen abandons him to have dinner with his girlfriend Sally, voiced by Bonnie Hunt). When McQueen gets roped into an international race to determine the fastest car in the world, he feels obligated to bring Mater with him, and like every good middle American touring Europe, Mater makes an absolute fool of himself. Lighting is frustrated by Mater’s antics, particularly when they cost him the first race in Tokyo. What Lightning doesn’t realize is that Mater has been pulled into an international spy plot ala The Man Who Knew Too Much (or The Man Who Knew Too Little), and when odd things start happening, Lightning assumes that his dense, ignorant, arrested friend is being dense, ignorant, and arrested. They argue. Mater leaves. And so Mater is pulled further into a dangerous spy plot away from all his friends and Lightning continues racing while wallowing in guilt over their confrontation, until their separate stories begin to converge.

I’ll admit that I like the spy angle. There was no way Cars 2 was going to reach the same heights Pixar has achieved in recent years, and a Hitchockian fish-out-of-water romp is definitely a fun, if not quite as edifying, way to kill a couple of hours. On top of that, I thought perhaps the movie would venture into the touchy territory of the American reputation and ideals in a modernized Europe; kind of a Ruggles of Red Gap in reverse. Instead, the film focuses on Mater and his idiosyncrasies, drawing sympathy from the way people get frustrated (or laugh condescendingly) when he does really stupid things. The results often feel mawkish, cloying, saccharine, and several other thesauruses full of semi-synonyms for what Pixar usually does, except not good. Lasseter’s typical affectionate, unironic approach to character might have backfired on him this time. I really think he cares that much about Mater, as he does about all his characters. Just like Cars seemed a lot like Doc Hollywood but was probably organically drawn from Lasseter’s love of middle America and NASCAR racing (which confused a lot of people, because how many great artists love middle America and NASCAR?), Mater seems like a compilation of stereotypes and contrivances, when I think Lasseter views him as a character. That’s fine when he’s in a supporting role, but in order for him to anchor a film, the audience has to care as much as Lasseter does. This will be divisive, because any idiotic character who accidentally succeeds over and over again, separate of any intentional effort on their own part, is going to become grating to a lot of people (although thankfully that happens a lot less than you might expect). So I don’t think Mater’s arc is so much pandering as it is unearned pathos, not helped at all by the fact that the film’s goals are the least ambitious in the studio’s history.

Then again, the lesser ambition isn’t exactly a flaw. In my humble opinion, the studio couldn’t very well keep upping the ante as they have been, or eventually their wonderfully contrasted opuses would become bipolar Oscar bait (or worse, Dreamworks films). Eventually Pixar was going to have to break free of the expectation that they could do all things for all people every single time out the gate. Such a sentiment could become just as limiting as the commercial whoring of other animation studios. Rather than a shift in the wrong direction, I see Cars 2 as an isolated attempt to take a break from the admittedly glorious but somewhat morose trends in the studio’s recent work (the last three films prominently featured the world ending, an old couple separated by death, and protagonists descending into the pit of hell). Sure, there are some scary elements to Cars 2 (including death, or whatever the car equivalent of death is), but it’s all in the name of a good time; the kind of time most kids have when playing with their cars. Talking cars blow up other talking cars on huge exploding buildings while racing while shooting guns while making toilet jokes while going across the world. For my inner five year old, Cars 2 is a miracle movie (also for my six year old brother, whose review I posted a couple days ago). I’m actually glad Pixar hasn’t become too full of themselves to make this movie. If the first film was Lasseter’s ode to car culture, this is his symphony to the sandbox. And like most films so personal and so free-spirited, it has a lot of holes and a lot of flaws, and a lot of people (myself included) are going to have some serious issues with it.

But let’s reel things back for a moment and take a look at all the things Cars 2 does exceptionally well. For instance, Pixar movies display some of the purest, simplest, most effective “camera” work in the business. Their elegant, unobtrusive shot selection is one of the most underrated weapons in their arsenal. Even when the story doesn’t service them well (it pretty much always does) the individual scenes are easy to get lost in. The Cars 2 spy action sequences, particularly the first one, shame most of today’s comparable big budget filmmaking. Compare these action scenes – which I emphasize have to work around the fact that guns are being wielded by cars – to the action in Quantum of Solace, Thor, Iron Man 2, or Inception (excepting Inception’s awesome hallway sequence. But imagine how hard it would be to shoot that with talking cars). Christopher Nolan could take a few pointers from Lasseter on how to maintain total coherence while still keeping up the frenetic pacing and breathtaking spectacle. How to Train Your Dragon has come the closest of any animated film I’ve seen to achieving the same complexity and effectiveness of Pixar’s direction, but forgetting for a moment the stories and characters in the two films, Cars 2 (by no means the best shot Pixar film) still has greater moments of aesthetic beauty and thrilling euphoria.

I hardly need to address the shot quality of Cars 2. From Finding Nemo to Wall-E, Pixar’s animation dominance has been well recorded. Here, various cities from Tokyo to London are breathtakingly rendered, reminding me of some of those incredible New York shots from Peter Jackson’s King Kong (Jackson claimed he had the entire city built digitally, accurate down to every individual door handle, and I believe him). Even more impressive is the way cars are made to express emotion and distinctive facial traits while remaining essentially car-like. Watch the facial performances of spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) closely. They’re incredible. Of course, these are the types of things we come to take for granted from a studio like Pixar, but I see them done in generic or even boring ways in enough animated films that I try to allow them to impress me, even after all these years.

That’s what I find amazing about Pixar. Everyone involved in the making of the film is talented enough and dedicated enough that if one department falls behind, the others pick up the slack (presumably. This is the first time any department has really fallen behind). Cars 2 might limp along occasionally, but I think it still has enough juice to putter past the finish line (and thus ends the car puns for the remainder of this review. I promise). The voice acting is superb for the most part. I especially loved Bruce Campbell’s brief cameo as the rough American spy car who is forced to deliver his plans to Mater in a Tokyo restroom. One villainous tow truck’s face and voice combine to deliver just the right sense of menace in a key moment of the film that escalates the action (where I think the script probably left much to be desired). Michael Giacchino’s score is the most forgettable of all his Pixar arrangements, but it services the film well. Truth be told, there’s not one scene in the movie that doesn’t at least somewhat work for me. While the pacing and development may not reach the heights of Pixar,  they would work for just about anyone else.

So yes, for all intents and purposes, “the streak” is over. Cars 2 is the worst Pixar film. I love the original Cars (the only other entry in their filmography to ever draw any flack) and so in my opinion, this is their first slip up. Nonetheless, you could do a lot worse for summer entertainment than Cars 2. It is still an incredibly crafted film, maybe a little messy and disorganized but enjoyable throughout. Its messages of being yourself and sticking up for your friends are trivial but harmless, and applicable to younger members of the audience (kids, having no filters, act like Mater a lot more than adults do). The social messages might be a little more pronounced than typical in a Pixar movie, but after this last summer, who doesn’t want to see Big Oil villainized a little bit? I just know this is the type of movie I would have gone crazy for when I was younger, and given the right expectations, it can be enjoyable for adults as well. I wouldn’t want Pixar to release Cars 2 every time, mind you, but once every sixteen years… I can deal with that.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: