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Cars 2 May Have Officially Ended Pixar’s Wonderful Streak

Cars 2
Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
Written by Ben Queen based on a story by Lasseter, Lewis, and Dan Fogelman
Disney, 2011

Cars 2 is the sequel to Pixar’s least satisfying film.  The original came out in 2006 and for many, it is the movie that has been most cited as the first blemish on Pixar’s stellar record.  I thought there was enough good in Cars to still say it was a good movie, it just paled in comparison to every other Pixar release.

Something questionable, but not an altogether insurmountable challenge presented to Pixar, was the announcement a few years ago that they would be making quite a few sequels to existing properties.  The discontinued-then-renewed union with Disney was obviously beginning to show signs that the studio was going to be used for cash-grabs now and again.  So Toy Story 3 was announced.  It turned out well, making not only gobs of money but also continuing Pixar’s excellence with critics and winning the Animated Feature Oscar.  Also announced: Cars 2 and Monsters, Inc. 2 (now Monsters University).  Cars 2 was a strange one.  It was not exactly a beloved film, it made middling returns for a Pixar movie…but then the truth came out.  Cars merchandise is where Disney really made lots of money on that picture.  In fact, all three of the aforementioned sequels made tons of secondary income.  This isn’t a coincidence.

This is kind of a shame, too.  Since Pixar had just gone through their best creative period when all of this was announced.  They were progressing, from an already lofty standard–The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up all showed that mainstream animation could not only be family fun, but sophisticated and emotionally impactful, even experimental.  So it was a bit discouraging to find out Disney wanted to make sequels to movies that just happened to sell a lot of toys.

So now we’re getting a sequel to merchandise, basically.  I still held out hope.  This is Pixar.  They can make miracles happen.  I saw the trailers; it looked more dynamic than the original.  Pixar would get another crack at Cars, and this time it would knock it out of the park.  And….and….no, it didn’t.  Cars 2 is wicked disappointing.  Even the short before the movie, Hawaiian Vacation, is not an original piece but another delving into the world of Toy Story.  Amusing as it is, this is a disconcerting addition to a movie that is already being perceived as a cash-grab before you even see it.

Our hero from the first one, the souped-up sports car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been winning Piston Cups left and right since we last saw him in the town of Radiator Springs.  He returns to his adopted home and reunites with Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the lovable idiotic tow truck who became his unlikely best friend, and his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt).  While there, they see a self-absorbed Formula 1-style Italian car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) on TV claiming he’s the best and fastest car in the world.  Tow Mater calls in to the show and throws down the gauntlet.  Before you know it, McQueen is entering into the World Grand Prix, three races in Tokyo, Porta Corsa (Italy), and London.

McQueen considers Mater his best friend, but isn’t exactly proud to have him around, thus he hasn’t brought him to any of his races.  As soon as they hit Tokyo, Mater is already embarrassing McQueen by talking and acting inappropriately, and so begins a level of tension in the friendship.

A big part of the upcoming races is the announcement that the cars will be running on an environmentally-friendly fuel provided by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard).  However, a gang of lemon-style cars, led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) have discovered a flaw in the fuel whereby an electromagnetic force can cause the cars to break down.  They have ideas of world domination whereby lemon cars will rule and get rich with good ol’ crude oil once they sabotage this new environmentally-sound oil.

On to their motives are British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and partner Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who mistakenly identify Mater as an American spy with important information.  Because Mater knows a lot about cars in general, he unknowingly passes as a world-class spy.  Finn thinks that Mater’s idiocy is the perfect cover by a master.  Mater can’t convince them that he isn’t what they think he is, because it seems all part of the act.

This is essentially a Mater Movie, so your tolerance of Larry the Cable Guy will be tested.  I actually kind of like Larry the Cable Guy, so no problems for me there.  I had problems with the plotting, which comes off pretty lame with the bad guys and their motives.  I had problems with a lot of the comedy, which takes that Flintstones-esque idea that every real world thing has a fantasy world equivalent, so Brent Musburger becomes Brent Mustangburger, and Darrell Waltrip is Darrell Cartrip.  And The Incredibles becomes The Incredimobiles.

Populating a world full of cars becomes a bit clumsy, there isn’t much diversity in what the filmmakers can do with characters that are essentially all the same, whether they are a lemon or a gorgeous sports car.  Think about Toy Story, where there are a billion kinds of toys, all with their unique traits.  Finding Nemo, with its diverse aquatic life.  When you make a world of one general kind of thing, there should be the opportunity to find characters. There’s a reason why people buy cars “that just get me from point A to point B.”  The better cars are just status symbols, and they may all have different kinds of features that make driving more enjoyable, but their essential function is to drive from point A to point B.  It’s like if an animation company decided to make a movie about a bunch of telephones.  Some phones are better than others, have better features, but in the end it’s just a phone.  It’s not like the difference between army men and a barrel of monkeys.

Cars 2 is hopefully an aberration in the Pixar legacy, and not a sign of things to come.  The good news is that their next movie is not a sequel (it’s medieval-times flick Brave).  Even as good as Toy Story 3 was, there was an element of staleness to that picture as well, so an original should do them some good.  You can’t win them all.

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