Friday, June 24, 2011
Movie review: Cars 2
Cars 2 is full of speed, but ultimately goes nowhere.
Success in any field, but especially Hollywood, can be a double-edged sword. Oscar winners will be praised to no end for a certain movie or role, but if they aren't able to follow that up with quality work, they can just as easily be forgotten about. Pixar/Disney is in an unprecedented position in the motion picture business in that all 11 of its feature films (which include the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, and Up) have garnered almost universal acclaim from critics and hundreds of millions of dollars in box office grosses. Even their so-called “disappointments” have been heads and tails above most other live-action, much less animated, films.
What the reaction will be when they deliver an average movie may soon be discovered with the release of Cars 2. The sequel to the film that many already consider to be the “worst” in Pixar's history, Cars 2 is different in almost every way from the original. Whereas the first was a touching tale about Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a race car, being forced to slow down his life when he gets waylaid in the Route 66 town of Radiator Springs, the sequel throws the audience headfirst into an international story involving big time auto racing and spy intrigue. It also shifts the focus from McQueen to Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). While McQueen is trying to prove his worth against another egotistical racer in a series of charity races, Mater gets accidentally caught up with British spies trying to figure out an evil plot that involves alternative fuel and electromagnetic pulses.
The best thing about Cars 2 is that fun is never in short supply. Mater's bumbling and stumbling is good for plenty of laughs, especially when he's teamed with new characters Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Director/Pixar head honcho John Lasseter and his team have also included their usual array of small details that will draw adult laughs, such as cars sleeping in glorified boxes in Japan. The use of 3D (it's also being shown in IMAX 3D), which has been derided of late, fits very well here, with multiple explosions and racing footage drawing the viewer in.
However, for the first time in Pixar's history, the filmmakers seem to have focused more on everything surrounding the plot than the plot itself. It's in this way that they've become victims of their own success. There's plenty of fun to be had in each of the previous 11 films, but there was also something special about them, something that goes straight to the heart. In Cars 2, it's all about the fun. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when they've delivered big emotions in all their previous films, the lack of it here is glaring. It also doesn't give Lasseter and company any leeway when the movie drags, which it sometimes does during its almost two hour running time.
The first mistake that they made was hinging the movie on Mater. Mater is your classic supporting character, and putting him to the forefront doesn't give the audience a solid base with which to connect. They've also jettisoned the majority of the familiar characters from the first film. Favorites like Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), and Flo (Jenifer Lewis) make fleeting appearances, but they hardly have any impact. It could be argued that since two of Cars' biggest stars, Paul Newman and George Carlin, died in the intervening five years, there was good reason to make the movie about something different than the original characters. However, Carlin's role, Fillmore, has been filled with a replacement actor, so they obviously made considerations in that respect.
On top of that, the plot of this film is probably Pixar's most complicated to date. Their stories are usually basic ones that become multi-layered because of the characters. The plot of Cars 2 is approached the opposite way, piling on confusing spy elements while never really getting to know the characters who are directly involved with the story. Overall, the feel is just of a generic spy movie, one that doesn't have that extra flair for which Pixar is known. This is even more apparent with the inclusion of the new Toy Story short, Hawaiian Vacation, prior to the film. There's more heart and nuance in those five minutes than in all of Cars 2.
Cars 2 is not a bad movie; in fact, at times, it's a very good one. But compared to Pixar's other 11 efforts, it just never matches up. Pixar is the gold standard by which animated films are measured, and when one of their films leaves the impression that it could have been made by any other studio, you know something is amiss.