Well, it had to happen. Pixar has made a film that is short of a masterpiece.
I think I’m not the only one who saw it coming. I was dubious from the moment this movie was announced, since I feel that Cars was the weakest of their 11 previous films, except possibly for A Bug’s Life. It got by mostly on the sheer novelty of seeing cars with real personalities, and on the usual wit and visual genius of the Pixar writers and animators. Maybe that phrase “usual wit and visual genius” has something to do with it. There are plenty of animated films out there these days that have good jokes, and pretty much all of them are visually stunning. That’s just not enough anymore.
So what do we have here? Just a film that is in the top 10% of the hundreds of CGI animated films being released these days. The disappointment lies in the fact that other Pixar films are safely in the top 1%. This is still better than all but a handful, most of them by Pixar partner Disney. It’s not as good as Tangled, or The Princess and the Frog, the latter being helped out a lot by the music which is a part of most Disney releases. It’s better than Ice Age, Madagascar, and any of the Shrek sequels. I think some of the more scathing reviews came because of the let-down … and probably because there are a lot of soreheads who envied Pixar’s success not only at the box office (and this one will be no exception) but with the critics. The knives had been sharpened, and they had been waiting a long time.
So, honestly, it’s not anything like a bad film, it’s just not up to Pixar standards. It has all the engaging elements of bright colors, lots of fast action (in 3D; no less, we went to the 2D version, I’m glad to say), and insanely detailed settings that you see in all CGI movies these days. What they didn’t manage to get right this time is what has been Pixar’s chief strength during its incredible run: the story. WALL●E was poetry, Up was bittersweet, Finding Nemo was moving while being exciting. Cars 2 is just exciting, and like all frenetic action pictures, ultimately too much. Surprisingly, Lightning McQueen, the hero of the first movie, is really in the background here. This movie is about Mater the tow truck from Radiator Springs (Larry the Cable Guy) and his adventures with British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, a sort of Aston Martin with all the 007 gadgets and more) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, a sort of Jaguar). They travel for the World Grand Prix, and the spies mistakenly think Mater is a spy, too. He hasn’t a clue, and is wildly out of his element in places like Tokyo and London. And here is the movie’s real delight, the wonderful sets imagining what these cities would look like if inhabited entirely by cars. We see cars sumo wrestling, and Mater eating a mouthful of hot wasabi, and television screens showing those peculiar pink-saturated Japanese animations featuring adorable kittens and such, the kind of thing that I as a westerner will never understand. Queen Elizabeth is, naturally, a Rolls-Royce.
But in the end the moral of the story is simply that you shouldn’t ask your friends to change just because they embarrass you. Okay. That’s it? I expect more from a Pixar film. And I know they pulled it off with Toy Story 1, 2, and 3, but I’m really worried about their upcoming project, Monsters University, a prequel to Monsters, Inc. There’s nothing really wrong with cashing in on a previous success (I’ve done it enough), but it is full of perils. If you don’t really really think your second story is as powerful as the first, you should think again. And the cynical part of me thinks that this movie got the green light for two reasons. One is the big new Cars-land opening at Disneyland in the near future, and the other is that Cars is probably the most exploitable of all Pixar films in terms of product tie-ins, which can make more money than the movie itself. The tail wagging the dog. Or the tailpipe wagging the Cars.