Monday, June 27, 2011

Cars 2 - Theatrical Review


Release Date: June 24, 2011

Here it is, the sequel we have all been waiting for....Incredibles 2!, er....Cars 2!...ummmm, yeah. Pixar has had a stellar record with their line up of films when it came to quality of animation, story, imagination and originality. While I was never really keen on the original Cars it did encompass all those aspects and I accepted it for what it was and moved on. Pixar should have done the same.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: El Capitan Theater Hollywood
Time: 7:00 pm June 25, 2011
Projector Type: Disney Digital 3D

Loves: Pixar
Likes: Spy movies
Neutral: The first Cars movie, talking cars
Hates: A movie that was blatantly made to sell merchandise, Larry the Cable Guy
Why?: Did we get this instead of Incredibles 2?

I have struggled with how I would open this review. I could talk about how Pixar has never made a bad film. I could mention how Pixar is one of the few movie studios that we could always count on. I might even be able to bring up the fact that their films are those rare gems where both children and adults alike could sit there in that theater for two hours and get whisked away by whatever world they have created this time. But the one thing I never wanted to start this review out with was by lamenting on how Pixar has finally succumb to the almighty cash cow that is the sequel. The film industry as a whole has been churning out assembly line sequels for decades now and we have come to expect that from them. However, I think we and most certainly I hold Pixar to a higher standard and when they started announcing all these upcoming sequels to some of their past films I got a little worried. Would they be able to produce sequels that weren't just quick cash grabs, films that perhaps had stories worth telling and worth revisiting old franchises for...? When I saw Toy Story 3 last year around this same time I breathed a sigh of relief because it seemed like they were on the right track. Then I saw Cars 2 the other day...I shouldn't have let my guard down it seems.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is back along with all his friends from Radiator Springs. This time around he has been challenged by a stuck up and overly confident racer by the name of Francesco (voiced by John Turturro) to enter the first ever World Grand Prix. He accepts the challenge and is soon off on a world racing tour with all his friends as his fill in pit crew including the lovable and oh so naive Tow Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy). Everything isn't as it seems though when we see that a British secret agent named Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and his lovely assistant Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer) are snooping around investigated a conspiracy to sabotage the grand prix and to meet up with an American secret agent who has valuable information they need. After a quick mix up and a case of mistaken identity Mater finds himself caught in the middle of this deadly cat and mouse game while also trying to save his friend Lightning from certain doom.

McQueen and friends are heading off on a grand adventure.

I didn't really care too much for the original Cars. It was the combination of nostalgia it was going for and the idea of talking cars (Chevron with Techron!) as the main characters that failed to connect with me. But despite my lack of interest in it there was some appeal there for anyone craving the nostalgia it served up which comprised mostly of adults and the kids had the talking cars to latch on to. Plus you had the usual Pixar magic with their stunning animation and overall production values. When Pixar announced they were making a sequel it didn't really come as much of a surprise to me by this point but I didn't understand why they were making it. I know that John Lasseter was really fond of the talking cars idea but that didn't really seem like enough of a reason for the double dip. Then I had it brought to my attention that Cars may not have been the most successful Pixar film ever but it was the most successful movie tie-in merchandising the company ever had.

Cars merchandise broke all kinds of records for Pixar reaching over $5 Billion in world wide sales. Now I won't presume to know exactly how this sequel was greenlit but my gut says it had a little something to do with those numbers. So, what does any of this nonsense have to do with how I felt about Cars 2? The quality of the film not withstanding I just don't like it when a film is created only for marketing purposes. And it is even a greater offense when the filmmakers didn't even care enough to make a film that had a message worth telling or at least one that hadn't been told a dozen times them! This film was tailor made to appeal to young children everywhere. I know what you're thinking...aren't all Pixar films made for kids? Yes and no.

McQueen and Mater are friends till the end...or the next sequel.

You see the one thing that Pixar had mastered out the gate over a decade and half ago was the ability to appeal to both adults and children with their stories. They have always been able to make their stories connect with all ages and the packaging they presented their stories in was like icing on the cake. The original Cars had that as do just about all other Pixar films in one form or another and that is where Cars 2 fumbles in my opinion. This is the very first Pixar film I have seen where I felt bored. Sure there were moments that peaked my interest which ironically were my least favorite moments from the first film, the racing segments. The scenes that fell flat for me were the spy espionage parts and unfortunately the majority of the film is taken up with those moments.

I am sure that all the spy stuff was supposed to reel in the older audience who have grown up with James Bond and even Austin Powers to some extent but the problem for me wasn't the delivery, well that isn't exactly true but I will get to that in a moment, it was the content. Watching actual human beings run around doing spy stuff in movies had become stale to me a long time ago with only a handful of exercises in that genre in recent years registering anything resembling new territory. Cars 2 isn't interested in new territory, it is interested in using a tried and true formula and injecting their lovable characters into it in hopes that would be enough to justify the globe trotting and larger than life setting they had created. If Pixar had to make this sequel for whatever reason I wish they had stuck with the more humble roots of the original film instead of this grander scale mystery story.

British secret agent cars...*yawn*

By this time I suppose I might sound like a cranky old man who doesn't like to have fun and that couldn't be any further from the truth. I like to pride myself on being able to assess what kind of entertainment someone could derive from a film regardless of my feelings on it. I know kids will love Cars 2, this was a no brainer for Pixar's financial department but I will once again state that I am not too sure on how adults will react to it. I suppose if you are in love with the spy genre then you might get a kick out of it. You may come away entertained for various reasons but I truly believe once the film has had a chance to settle in you might just find yourself feeling indifferent to it. There are two reasons for this thought process, the first of which is the already mentioned spy story line but the second is probably the worst decision Pixar has ever made.

And that is making Mater the main character of this story. My dislike for Larry the Cable Guy aside, this was a horrible choice from a story telling point of view...unless you are trying to sell merchandise that is. Lightning McQueen was a decent if unremarkable main character from the original film who had some life lessons to learn. Where Mater was more like the comic relief, the character they would use to add some humor to a scene when needed. He never really had very much depth other than being lonely and wanting a friend which was resolved by the end of that first film. This time it is about losing a friend and discovering that a person must be true to ones self even when faced with desperate situations. It is about accepting people for who they are and not trying to change them. In other words it is about the same damn thing every other Pixar movie has ever been about. But I bet them Mater toys will be flying off the shelves in no time because he is just so darn lovable.

He sure does make a nice plush toy doesn't he...

If you were to go back and look at every single Pixar movie you will find that there is a constant underlying message about accepting people for who they are instilled into all of them. It may not always be completely up front with it (Wall-E) or sometimes it is the main focus (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) but it is always present. So why if all other Pixar films that I have loved over the years have been recycling this morale am I so harsh on Cars 2 then? Because there is nothing else the film is trying to do, unless you count the ever so subtle references to global warming. It is clear that Pixar needed to find some way to make Mater the main character and for that to happen they had to give him some sort of reason for being there. Since Mater is such a simpleton (just like all comedy relief characters mind you) they had no other choice than to use the "lose a friend" plot line.

Sure they have Mater mixed up in all the spy stuff as well but let's be honest here, all he does is fumble about and make a bunch of supposedly funny car anecdotes in the traditional Larry the Cable Guy way for most of the movie. Seriously though if you would like a quick reference as to how I view the choice of using Mater as the main character then just picture Toy Story 2 with Rex (the dinosaur) as the main character with Woody and Buzz off on their own side adventure. If it weren't for the usual slick production value of a Pixar film then I would swear this was direct to video quality story telling here which is just uncalled for. In an attempt to be fair though there were a few moments beyond the racing that stood out to me as interesting and even pretty darn cool at some points.

More like Ka-ching!

The world tour the film does was refreshing but other than the time spent in Japan it all felt like a wasted opportunity. All the fish out of water hijinks that Mater gets into is nothing special but just the way Japan was represented here was not only spot on but funny as hell. I know there are a lot of anime fans at Pixar and their fandom shined through every moment in that locale. The few action scenes (yes, there are action scenes in Cars 2) were energetic and fast paced enough to keep my attention but usually was punctuated by another scene of two or three cars sitting around talking. I'm sorry if this is coming off as overly critical but like I mentioned at the outset, I and most others hold Pixar to a higher standard and this film did not meet that standard. Does that make it a bad film? No, but it does make it a poor one.

I am not gonna lie, this movie looks gorgeous and the cast of voice actors (even Larry) are all sublime in their parts, especially John Turturro who seems to be channeling his character from The Big Lebowski. The globe trotting constantly switches up the locales which helps move the film along and the musical score my Michael Giacchino was superb. Those things are par for the course for Pixar though and can usually be found in all their movies. The originality and unequaled storytelling is what is missing from the equation here and that drastically hurt the film for me. While I can't honestly say I regret watching Cars 2 I also can't see myself ever seeing it again. For the families out there I would recommend it without hesitation, your kids will eat it up...but just remember to bring your credit card along because you are going to be hitting up the local Disney store immediately after.




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