Sunday, June 26, 2011

CARS 2 Review

"Cars 2" (2011)

This had better be the closest Pixar ever gets to selling out. Even more than the "Toy Story" franchise, "Cars" had the most opportunity for merchandising. With "Cars 2," it gets out of hand and becomes an obvious motive for making a painful sequel. The number of product tie-ins is staggering, and the verbal State Farm reference in the actual movie made me sick. 2006's "Cars" was the highest grossing Pixar movie but the least critically successful. So why did it warrant a sequel? Money.

It makes me want to grab veteran Pixar director John Lasseter by the shoulders, give him a good shake and demand, "Why?!" Some say this marks the first time Pixar has come out with a bad movie. For me that was the original "Cars," but now its sequel makes that look like a masterpiece. Lasseter is the man who directed the original "Toy Story," the crowning gem of Pixar animation. Now he's gone and directed the studio's low point, a rusted blemish on an otherwise nearly spotless record. It really is depressing if you think about it; a year wasted for Pixar.

All of your favorite car characters are back from the original -- barely. Instead, the movie introduces a new cast of cars to intermingle with the two leads, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his bumbling simpleton rust bucket tow truck of a best friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). McQueen has just got back from a racing tour when he's whisked off to face against the cocky Italian F1 racecar Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) in the brand new World Grand Prix taking racers from Japan to Italy to England. The race is sponsored by Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) who has invented a new alternative fuel that will make oil gasoline obsolete. A message is begging its way through here, but it comes off as a misdirected and bizarre anti-"WALL-E."

This premise has little to do with the original's theme about small town American values and knowing your neighbor. It's replaced with international intrigue and a convoluted spy tale in which Mater gets completely swept up while McQueen is off racing. I don't know whose decision this was, but once a sidekick, Mater gets heaved to the front of the action. Thank goodness there are the welcome additions of the British intelligence Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to offset what becomes the Mater show where it's all Mater all the time. After sitting through his constant so-called comic relief, I never want to hear Larry the Cable Guy's voice again in my life.

"Cars 2" manages to escape everything Pixar is about; that is, elevating animated and children's films to something much more, something every age group can embrace and admire with slack-jawed awe having the realization that you've witnessed something really special, a feeling that only Pixar can create. They've given us deep character development, charm, humor and emotion. This sequel does nothing in terms of that and actually depletes the relationships created in its predecessor. And as was the problem then, a world with only cars and no humans is hard to get invested in, so that's still that strike against it here.

The one Pixar quality that does make it through is technical proficiency in terms of sound and visuals. The music is sizzling from composer Michael Giacchino, the locations are exotic and lush with detail and the cars are shimmering smooth. The fact that it's great to look at does save it from being unwatchable.

The problem is that had "Cars 2" been made by any other animation studio, it'd probably be considered pretty good. But it is Pixar, and they've created a higher standard for themselves that -- unfortunately for them -- they're expected to uphold by this point. With the non-sequel "Brave" being released next year, it looks as if this studio is already on its way to redemption. Maybe John Lasseter was just out to have some fun, but it just didn't work. What did work was the "Toy Story" short preceding the feature, "Hawaiian Vacation," which was nostalgic and hilarious.

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