by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Holy crap – have you seen the aggregate rating for Pixar's Cars 2 on Rotten Tomatoes? As of this writing, it's currently holding at 33%! That means, out of all the critics who've seen the movie, only 1/3 actually liked the movie enough to recommend it. For a Pixar movie, that's unheard of – unprecedented even. Especially when you look at their Rotten track record: Toy Story (100%), A Bug's Life (91%), Toy Story 2 (100%), Monsters Inc. (95%), Finding Nemo (98%), The Incredibles (97%), Cars (74%), Ratatouille (96%), WALL-E (96%), Up (98%), and Toy Story 3 (99%).

Look at that list again. Did you notice anything else peculiar about it? That's right: Out of all the Pixar films to grace our theater screens, Cars and Cars 2 rank the lowest. Frankly, this is baffling to me. What's everyone's problem with Cars? If you read any of those reviews, the general consensus seems to be that no one buys that particular world. I get that. A world populated by talking anthropomorphic vehicles? Sports cars, passenger cars, trucks, helicopters, airplanes, bugs? Are you serious? Sure, I can buy walking, talking toys and insects and fish and monsters in my closet, but vehicles with mouths and eyes and hopes and dreams? That's a little too much to grasp, thank you very much. Who "manufactures" these cars anyway? Where are all the people? Who built the highways? Who carved all those structures in the mountains? Help, my brain is melting!

But seriously, folks. You ask questions like that, and you might as well ask the same thing about Pixar's other fantasy worlds. Like: Who instilled all those toys with life, a soul? Do bugs really speak English? (While we're at it, how are caterpillars and ants and spiders co-existing peacefully? Isn't that against their instinctive natures?) Do fish speak English? Do pelicans? How do they communicate so easily with each other? Can a shark really become a vegetarian? Can rats really cook gourmet meals?

You also read those initial Cars reviews, and you'll see more than one critic say that the movie rips off the plot for Doc Hollywood, the Michael J. Fox comedy from 1991. To which I reply: Is there really a plot or idea these days that doesn't rip off something that's come before it? Apply that to the Pixar model as well. Toy Story­ = every buddy comedy ever made. A Bug's Life = Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. The Incredibles = The Fantastic Four (the comic book, not the movie). WALL-E = Short Circuit. You remember the heartbreak and the fear of abandonment that plagued the characters during Toy Story 3? Guess what: 1987's The Brave Little Toaster covers the exact same ground – with kitchen appliances!

Sorry, but I just don't buy it. When you tell me it's too hard to suspend your belief for a movie like that, or that it's too much like everything else that's preceded it, you're either grasping at straws, or you've never seen a movie before. I happen to enjoy the original Cars. I think the backgrounds and textures are surface-smooth and photo-realistic. I like the plot, about finding your roots (routes?) and re-connecting with what's really important. (I'd say the plot flows a lot better than Pixar's Finding Nemo, which is gorgeous to look at but awfully repetitive). Yes, Cars is about a hot-headed NASCAR stock car and his assorted four-wheeled friends... but so what? It's a cartoon. You say it's the least passionate put of all the studio's films? Well, it's a well-known fact that director John Lasseter (who's spearheaded every Pixar film since Toy Story) has been infatuated with the automotive world since he was a kid – Route 66, the call of the road, all that – and it's that particular obsession he wanted to capture in animated form. (If that ain't passion, folks, I don't know what is.) You can see it in the detail of the characters, in the world that surrounds them. In terms of animation at least, Cars either equals Pixar's previous efforts or surpasses them, depending on which movie you're comparing it to.

In truth, I think this disdain for Cars comes down to one simple thing: critical and cultural backlash. Think about that. If you're a movie studio (or a Wall Street company, or a sports team, or a NASCAR driver), you can't have a successful string of hits/wins/billion-dollar business ventures like that without raising some ire among your peers. One or two successes in a row, fine. But any more than that, and you've got a whole group of people just waiting to watch you fall from your perch. Which makes Cars Pixar's proverbial fall guy.

It wasn't always this way. I remember Cars received relatively good reviews from moviegoers during its theatrical run. It grossed $461,983,149 in ticket sales worldwide. Then came the inevitable merchandising juggernaut – the toys, the apparel – earning over $1 billion in retail sales. Could this be what finally pushed people to the edge? Turned us against the world of Lightning McQueen, Radiator Springs and all its car-habitants? I think, too, that it just took one guy - one smart aleck critic with a chip on his shoulder and a newspaper/ website/blog at his disposal - to say one negative thing about the movie ("You know, I've really enjoyed every Pixar movie so far... except for stinkin' Cars"), and suddenly people took his lead and ran with it. Suddenly, it became "cool" to bash on Cars (red-hooded step-child, anyone?), the popular thing to do. Just to fit in with the crowd.

I know there are some of you reading this who dislike the movie (or, at the very least, enjoy it a little less than the rest) and disagree with my reasoning. But the fact is, we live in a world of lemmings, followers and wannabes, and you have to be careful when formulating your own opinion on specific topics not to follow in someone else's footsteps. Is it really considered "independent thought" if you're basically just agreeing with what everyone is saying? Does it help soothe your ego if you find the rest of the world agrees with you? (No, I do not pride myself on the fact that Finding Nemo ranks lower on my own personal list than Cars.)

That 33% approval score for Cars 2 has a lot to do, I think, with the movie that directly preceded it. Toy Story 3 blew a lot of us away last summer, and its legacy is undeniable. It was a sequel, a third go-round in a popular franchise (and, let's face it, a pre-determined box office cash cow), and no one expected it to carry the weight and emotion it did. Now, in its wake, comes Cars 2. Read that latest batch of reviews, and you'll see people describe the movie as "tedious," "a stinker," "awful," "frenzied," and "stuck in neutral." Really? Compared to what? Yes, it's no TS3, I'll grant you that. But did it need to be? Just because it's not on par with Pixar's previous masterworks, does that necessarily make it a bad movie? Or not worth recommending?

For the record, I've seen Cars 2, and I liked it quite a bit. It's different from most sequels you're probably used to, as it takes a supporting character from last time (Mater the Tow Truck, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), and turns him into the main character this time. How much you like the movie, of course, depends on your tolerance for Larry's signature hillbilly schtick, but you can't deny that Mater's got a great giant heart, and it's sweet how the big lug(nut) actually steps up and performs as a protagonist should – i.e., facing a crisis and solving his own problems just as All Seems Lost. The tone of the sequel is different, too. Oh, it's still a fish-out-of-water story (Mater in Tokyo! Mater in Italy! Mater chattin' it up with the dagum Queen of England!), but it plays like a globe-trotting, James Bond-ian spy thriller with visceral, virtually non-stop action sequences – a far cry from the cornpone, relax-and-enjoy-the- ride-that-is-life mentality of the first film.

More than that, it's not going to change the world or your perception of things, not in any way. It's entertainment, plain and simple, and wants nothing more than to dazzle your eyeballs for a couple of hours. And again I ask, what's the problem with that?

There's a subplot in the movie about conventional fuels versus alternative fuels, "lemons" versus newer-modelled cars, that expounds upon Lasseter's love of all things engines and chassis and squealing tires and the open road. This lends Cars 2 an underpinning of regret and longing for times past (also a throwback to the first film) that most sequels can't even muster. I don't think it's fair to call any movie a "stinker" just because it doesn't try for something greater. Then again, maybe each of us holds Pixar to such a high standard that comparisons aren't just unavoidable, they're inevitable. Make up your own mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment