Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cars 2: How Pixar Sold Out

Remember when I compared the wizards at Pixar Animation Studios to the English alternative rock band Radiohead? Remember when I said that neither group could do much wrong? I want to take back my orginal statements. Not for the Oxfort quintet, mind you. Their streak remains a perfect 8 for 8 with The King of Limbs, but that's for another time. I'm talking, sadly, about Pixar. Yeah, i'm shocked i'm writing this, too.

You see, the studio reached an all-time personal best with Toy Story 3, a brilliant, masterful and deeply bittersweet sendoff to Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, Jesse, and all the rest of Andy's toys that magically come to life whilst Andy is away. The mixture of comedy, breathtaking animation, and the pains of growing up and moving past the days of childhood and care-free innoncence crafted the studio's best movie since 2004's The Incredibles, their second straight Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and their sixth Oscar win for Best Animated Feature. Cut to one year later, and Pixar released Cars 2, the studio's first attempt to make another franchise off of a popular previous release that isn't Toy Story.Before I go further on this review, allow me to talk about why the 2006 flick, Cars, got a sequel to begin with. Simply put, money.

I know, I know: every last movie from Pixar made big money at the box office, so why this one? Unlike previous works underlining more mature themes such as suburban/marriage life (The Incredibles) and dealing with abandonment issues (Toy Story 2), Cars was an ode to the American love affair of the automobile and to the romanticism of Route 66. The story didn't go any deeper than Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) learning to slow down, enjoy what was in front of him and learn a valuable lesson in respecting and valuing tradition instead of going through life as an ego-driven jock, the animation was glossy and as stylistic as any Pixar movie and the voice casting was once again spectacular, in particular, Larry the Cable Guy as Mater, the rusty tow truck/comic relief of the film and the late Paul Newman as Doc Hudson, in the actor's final role before retiring one year later, then passing on in 2008. The movie hit all the right buttons with the family demographic and Pixar didn't shame itself by resorting to bad slapstick gags to get easy laughs.

In short: it was a piece of nostalgia for the older generation and it didn't scare the tykes or had any deep-meaning message other than the one I just mentioned above. For Pixar, it was a shiny, non-offensive, package that gave tribute to a slice-of-life romanticism of 1950's American culture blended with today's obsession with motorsports, and it just happened to make the Cars brand sell big with younger kids and their families, so logic dictated that there be a sequel that gives the audience more of what they liked the first time.

And that, as the Bard would say, lies the rub: Cars 2 doesn't try to evolve the characters or go beyond the message of be true to yourself and never forget who your friends are. Hell, Cars 2 lacks the Pixar touch of reeling in its audience with emotional storytelling and allowing the sometimes harsh realities of life to enter through. How do I know this? Because ever last Pixar film had some level of deep thought and or meaning into their movies!

Take what writer/director Andrew Stanton said about the theme of WALL-E was as an example:
Well, what really interested me was the idea of the most human thing in the universe being a machine because it has more interest in finding out what the point of living is than actual people. The greatest commandment Christ gives us is to love, but that's not always our priority. So I came up with this premise that could demonstrate what I was trying to say—that irrational love defeats the world's programming. You've got these two robots that are trying to go above their basest directives, literally their programming, to experience love.
 Another example is co-writer/director Peter Docter and what his movie, Up, was about to him:
"We've described it as a 'coming of old age' story," he said. "It's really like an unfinished love story, is kind of the way we're talking about it. This wonderful romance this guy had with his wife and she passes away and it's the unfinished business of dealing with that. The little kid [also has things he] needs to deal with ... and so the two of them end up really needing each other and helping to finish each other's business."
Those two movies I highlighted had something deeper than just their bizarre, almost vague premises that their respective trailers let show for audiences. Cars 2 doesn't even try to expand on an emotional level, or even a most of the characters. The director of the movie, John Lasseter, admitted as much.
When I was travelling around the world doing interviews for Cars I just had the characters on the brain. I kept looking out thinking, ‘What would Mater do in this situation, you know?’
I could imagine him driving around on the wrong side of the road in the UK, going around in big, giant travelling circles in Paris, on the autobahn in Germany, dealing with the motor scooters in Italy, trying to figure out road signs in Japan...
Yes, the sequel is mostly about Mater. Sure, there's a sub-plot about McQueen racing in the World Grand Prix, a race that spans three continents from Tokyo to Italy, but it's all about Mater and how he's in an adventure of his own, as master spy Finn McMissile (Sir Michael Cane) and his partner Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) convinced his knowledge of "lemon" vehicles (cars that are defective after they are purchased) makes him a spy himself, convince him in helping British Intelligence track down and stopping a master mind from raising oil profits by making a new type of fuel McQueen is helping to promote look defective. Yep, the plot is thin, the character deveopment is even thinner, but hey, the animation and the visuals are still as sleek and easy on the eyes as ever! Seriously, this is the kind of product i'd expect from Dreamworks Animation or Blue Sky Animation, not from the studio who gave us the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up.

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