Saturday, March 17, 2012

Looking Back on "Cars 2"

Note: This article is jam-packed with spoilers. If you've never seen Cars 2 and have the desire to see it, read no further. I don't go over the plot (this is not a review, per se), because those who are reading this have probably seen the film. I know the plot, and I'm not going to go over it like I would in a review. Just a heads up for ya...

Last summer, Pixar had their first critical dud with Cars 2, the sequel to John Lasseter's personal tale of a cocky racecar winding up in a forgotten Route 66 town to learn that there's more to life than fame. Cars 2 became the first Pixar film to garner mostly negative reviews from the critics, and it was also their first film since 1998 to miss $200 million at the domestic box office, as the $200 million mark was always passed by Pixar's films since Toy Story 2. It is also the lowest attended Pixar film to date. Several fans have regarded it as the worst film Pixar has ever made and some even consider it an outright terrible film. Some just want it to go away. As a huge Pixar fanatic, what do I say?

Cars 2 definitely is Pixar's worst film, but Pixar at their worst can still churn out something that has merit in it. I wouldn't put it anywhere near the worst theatrical animated features, or even anywhere near truly mediocre works. To me, it's an average romp that suffers from several things, mainly squandered potential and a surprisingly disappointing story and screenplay.

Where to begin... Cars 2 was a problematic film from the start. With all due respect to John Lasseter, I firmly believe that the project was started because Disney executives took note of the explosive success of the merchandise from the first Cars. They figured, Pixar has never delivered them a dud, and a sequel is a safe bet and will fund future projects that were as ambitious as masterpieces like Ratatouille and WALL-E. A sequel to Cars was a guaranteed success in the eyes of the executives. They pitched it to John Lasseter, and he got behind it because this was his story and he wanted to try new things with it. John Lasseter states that he wanted to do a Cars sequel when he was promoting the film overseas, stating that he thought, "What would Mater do in this situation?" whenever he observed certain roads around the world.

Yet we didn't hear any of this talk back in 2006 when the first one came out. You think Lasseter would be all over that when the first film hit theaters, but we first heard about it in 2008. In early 2008, Cars merchandise generated a whopping $5 billion in sales. It was quickly becoming one of Disney's biggest franchises, which lead some to believe that the first film was nothing more than a toy commercial. I disagree.

I've been in the minority since the film first hit theaters on June 9, 2006. I firmly believe that Cars is pure excellence like the other Pixar films, a great work of storytelling with wonderful characters, fantastic animation and a great screenplay. Some may say it's too much like Doc Hollywood, I personally think that Pixar's spin on this familiar story works the same way it did in A Bug's Life. Some may question the universe that the film takes place in, asking questions like "How do they reproduce?" and such.

I always saw the Cars universe as a big "what if" scenario. What if the world was inhabited by automobiles? I believe that Lasseter didn't want us to over think this, and just embrace this fantasy world. While I believe animated family films should definitely be analyzed, Cars isn't one of those films that should require a huge analysis and I believe it wasn't meant to be something like that. Sit back, relax and just follow the main storyline. Now that I got my thoughts on the first Cars out of the way, let's focus on the problems Cars 2 was plagued with before production on the film began.

First of all, if Cars 2 happened to be a marketing idea proposed to Mr. Lasseter, then the wizards at Pixar would certainly make a worthy sequel, right? When Cars 2 was announced in 2008, I thought, "Hey, this could work!" A majority of Cars took place in Radiator Springs, while we did see some other parts of the United States. (The motor speedways, the places we see during the "Life is a Highway" sequence) I wanted to see what the rest of the car world would look like, and this sequel was going to be the very film that was going to show movie goers what else lies out there in the world of Cars.

Brad Lewis, the producer of Ratatouille, was picked to be the director of this sequel to Lasseter's 2006 film. This would've been his directorial debut. Did he have the chops? Who knows. How much of Brad Lewis' ideas are in the finished film? I'd say a lot, since John Lasseter ultimately had to come in and take over the project in 2010, when the film was in production.

Cars 2 had a lot of possibilities, but it was really a safe project. It was a sequel, which seemed to imply that Pixar was going the easy route. What did I think? Well, I thought that someone at Pixar had a very good idea for a Cars sequel, since the folks at Pixar (mainly Lasseter) have said that they don't make sequels unless they have a good idea. This is true, but Toy Story 2 was a project that they ultimately had to do. Lasseter and the crew made the best of it and didn't settle for a subpar direct-to-video sequel, literally working hard to make a worthy sequel in such a short amount of time. The results? Rave reviews (a rarity for a sequel!) and $485 million at the worldwide box office.

At the same time Cars 2 was announced, we all knew that Toy Story 3 was revamped by Pixar after Disney's Circle 7 Animation studio was going to produce their own Toy Story 3 along with other sequels to Pixar films. This was prior to Disney's acquisition of Pixar in 2006, when it seemed like Disney was going to lose the Emeryville studio and that the Mouse House would make sequels to their films to milk the cash cow. Still, we all knew that Pixar would make a great finale to the Toy Story series with a third film. They disassociated themselves with Disney's planned version and refused to look into it. They took this project seriously. I figured, since they did the same for Toy Story 2, they would take a Cars sequel seriously. Sure, it could've been pitched because Disney wanted to sell more toys, but they could still make the best of it and deliver a good film. Not to mention, Lasseter takes storytelling seriously and most likely wouldn't allow something with a messy story to hit theaters.

In 2008, Paul Newman and George Carlin passed away. Paul Newman, as you all know, provided the voice of Doc Hudson, a major character in the first film. George Carlin provided the voice of the 1960 Volkswagon bus Fillmore. We didn't hear much about what Pixar was going to do. Would they get a replacement for Newman, much like they did for Slinky in Toy Story 3? (Jim Varney passed away after the second film came out, they got Blake Clark to provide Slinky's voice in the third film, and he pulled it off masterfully) If they were to write Doc Hudson out of the story, some of the charm that made the first film work would be missing. Same if they nixed Fillmore.

What did they do? They killed off Doc Hudson, having a brief tribute of sorts to him in the film's first act. They kept Fillmore, as his voice was provided by Lloyd Sherr. So they kill off Doc in respect of Paul Newman, but they didn't kill off Fillmore? Something is not right there, but early on in production, Doc Hudson's apparent death was going to be a driving force in the story. According to Nathan Stanton, McQueen and Mater would be affected by Doc's passing during the trip. He served as a father figure to them, but without him, they were somewhat misguided and thus their friendship begins to falter.

This could've worked, it could've added a lot of heart and emotion into the film. The recent Pixar films were noted for their tearjerker moments, and this early version of Cars 2 could've been right in line with them while also being an action-packed romp. It would've been a nice blend. Did they go through with this? Sadly, no. While McQueen and Mater's friendship falls apart during the trip, it only happens because of Mater's foolery and that it embarrasses McQueen. It seems like McQueen is now focused on winning, which he learned wasn't everything in the first film. Why? Francesco Bernoulli, his cocky Formula 1 rival. Mater's antics already annoy McQueen prior to the first race in the World Grand Prix. To make matters worse, Mater is tied up in a conspiracy. Mater's communication with Holley Shiftwell accidentally causes McQueen to lose the race to Francesco.

So enough of the whole friendship story. The main story here is the spy plot. Now a Cars sequel that would only focus on the World Grand Prix might've seemed typical and nothing special. Sure, you'd have lots of great race scenes in colorful locations around the world, but the story wouldn't have much punch unless Pixar used the "Doc's passing affected McQueen and Mater" arc. This could've been made into a suitable sequel, and it probably could've been a better film.

A spy plot was added to spice up the story. Early on, I thought, "That could be fun." Instead of a sequel being just about racing and seeing the sights, we'd be getting pulse-pounding action and the Cars equivalent of a James Bond story. With a good story to support the action scenes, it'll make other summer blockbusters look like garbage in comparison. So they're going to go all out with the sequel. So many possibilities!

Unfortunately, the spy plot is what hurts this film. The spy story literally dominates the film. Everything else feels like an afterthought: McQueen and Mater's friendship and the World Grand Prix. This makes me wonder, how come the crew just couldn't make this a spin-off that just focused on Finn McMissile, Holley Shiftwell and a big conspiracy that had nothing to do with Lighting McQueen and his friends? Some have suggested this idea. With that, it would've made for a passable direct-to-video sequel. That way, Disney could make more money without hurting Pixar's brand name. Plus, it wouldn't ruin or stain the first film, since it would be regarded as just a direct-to-video sequel if you don't look at it as a true continuation of the first film. (Which is how I view the Disney direct-to-video sequels)

The spy plot dominates the story, regardless of how well its written. Of course, the reason why it doesn't work is because we are asked to endure nearly two hours of Mater's antics and how his actions help him get ahead in cracking this conspiracy, but the answers are already apparent in the film's first act. In short: Too much Mater. I liked Mater in the first film. I don't mind Larry the Cable Guy's brand of humor. Mater is a funny character in the first film. His inept ways make him likable, as he really just wants to be Lightning McQueen's friend. In this film, he's just obnoxious and all over the place. He is even more inept in this film. In fact, he's so inept that it's unrealistic, and it gets tiresome. It's like he aims to screw things up, even when he's in great danger.

Yet this is what we see throughout the whole film. Lightning McQueen is pretty much an extra in this film, along with the rest of the Radiator Springs gang. One argument that can be made is that Cars was McQueen's story and that this film was Mater's story. If so, they still should've given the other characters enough screen time. The film is really "Mater's Spy Adventure" more than anything. The story works at times, and at other times, it doesn't. The attempts at trying to inject heart into the picture (McQueen regretting yelling at Mater, Mater realizing how foolish he's been) are contrived and ultimately don't work. They make me think, "This should've been the whole movie. Heart and character development, not Mater's antics." I mean, I wasn't expecting this film to be a tearjerker along the lines of Up or Toy Story 3, but still, I expect heart and sincerity in a Pixar film. There's only shreds of it in this film.

The story is a mess in Cars 2, and for a Pixar film, that's not good. I don't, however, believe that it's an outright bad film. Sure, I don't want to see something "average" coming from Pixar, but still, I don't think it's terrible. I actually think it's an enjoyable film if you just look at it as a silly romp that's mostly devoid of Pixar brilliance. I don't want Pixar to go down these paths again, but still, I enjoyed the film. I also own the Blu-ray, and not just for all of those bonus features. It's just an enjoyable film. It's like a summer blockbuster, without most of the obnoxious stupidity you'd see in something like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In other words, if another studio made Cars 2, I wouldn't have been as disappointed.

The fact remains, I was very disappointed when I saw the film on opening day. Many other fans and critics were. I still "liked" the film, though. I know some think it's a terrible animated film and just one of the worst. Really? Would you really rank it alongside the worst? At least there's a plot that gets from start to finish with no hassle, it has great production values, excellent staging and some thrilling action scenes. Sure the story is a big mess and the screenplay is weak, but I believe the film is saved by these other positive elements.

It's really another case of "what could've been". Clearly, the team behind this film wanted to make a very good action film with a good story. A good look at the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray (you have to get the 3D combo pack to get all of the bonus features) proves this, and the fact that there was a storyline about McQueen and Mater being affected by Doc's passing is also proof. That story could've really worked. At the same time, they could've had the spy plot, but without Mater being mistaken for a spy.

I always thought about that when the film was in theaters. What if they went through with the plot where Doc's passing is a major part of the story, McQueen and Mater can't stand each other, and of course the World Grand Prix. If they wanted a spy story, it should've been in the background. The conspiracy should've been kept in the dark, Finn McMissile and Holley would show up from time to time, but that's about it. We have no idea what's causing the wrecks at the race, no hints that it could be Allinol. In the film, when they suggested that it was the alternative fuel that could've been causing the wrecks, it just made everything more predictable.

That could've worked, or maybe it just could've been a direct-to-video spin-off about Finn and Holley that would be produced by DisneyToon Studios so it wouldn't have anything to do with Pixar. (Much like the upcoming Planes) That way, Disney can swim in dough while also benefiting from the first film and the Cars Toon shorts. That could've been done, while Pixar could've made Brave or Newt the big event for the summer of 2011.

Cars 2 might be looked at as an average film in the coming years, and not an outright disaster. Opinions really seem to be divided here. The box office gross in North America proves that people were disappointed by this film, but worldwide, it was a smash hit. Cars 2 had the smallest multiplier for a Pixar film domestically, especially after taking in $66 million on its opening weekend. It didn't appeal to fans, it didn't appeal to the adults and teens that Pixar films get, it didn't appeal to family audiences either. This couldn't appeal to anyone. It performed like a blockbuster, it opened big and then fizzled out. Usually Pixar films take in $60-70 million on opening weekend and they have staying power. That's how they get past $200 million domestically. Cars 2 missed it, grossing $191 million in total. Again, the attendance was the lowest for a Pixar film.

I believe it's an average film. I can't blame anyone at Pixar for the overall product, I firmly believe that the film turned out the way it did was because it was just problematic from the start. You could say they made the best of it. Perhaps Lasseter went a little too far with his personal project, adding things that probably weren't necessary. I am well aware that this universe is very near and dear to him, and I respect that. No one is perfect and perhaps some of Lasseter's ideas would've been better off on the cutting room floor. You know how Pixar talks about story ideas that seem great at first and then they just don't work, right? Cars 2 is pretty much that in a nutshell. If Cars 2 wasn't overseen by Lasseter, maybe it would've been a collaborative effort. I think Lasseter is a brilliant man, but I'd say Cars is his weakness. Listen to the audio commentary on the Blu-ray, you can tell that he personally felt that everything in this film worked. (The story, Mater's character development, everything else)

In conclusion, I believe that Cars 2 is an average film that gets a lot of flack. I don't think it's a good film by any means, but a passable effort with excellent animation, great staging and a good dose of humor. It's pretty much on the same level as your typical animated romp. I can accept the fact that Pixar has made a film that's not up to their standards. I didn't whine and cry about how the mighty have fallen after I saw it. I was disappointed, yes, but I still liked the film for what it was. I respect others' opinions on the film, but I personally felt that it gets a little too much bashing.

What are your thoughts on this film? Do you believe it's a terrible film? Do you think it's as good as anything else Pixar has ever done? Do you believe it's just okay at best? Sound off!

1 comment:

  1. I didn't have any probelms with Cars 2. Sure it could have been a lot better, but it was still fun. I wish it revolved around the death of Doc Hudson just like "Up" revoled around death, though. I also think they could have realeased it later, say, a couple of years later, as well so they didn't have to rush through it. But I still enjoyed the film.