Saturday, June 18, 2011

Let's Talk About Cars 2...

In just six days, we'll be treated to the twelfth feature film produced by the studio that makes critical and financial hit after hit. I'm talking, of course, about Pixar Animation Studios, and its latest work of art: Cars 2.

Last year, when I was doing my countdown of Pixar's feature films, I was asked if I could pick one from the library to watch, which one would I watch? Well, I chose Cars. I said it had a children's literature charm to it, despite not being terribly insightful and having braindead voice acting. However, I picked out a few more themes since then: the contrast of small town vs. big city values and some social commentary on transportation infrastructure, to name a couple. But, in short, I like it because it's fun.

I have some questions about what goes on in the Cars universe. Since many of the places in Cars resemble real settings (Peach Springs, AZ = Radiator Springs,) and the characters resemble real car models, my theory is that the characters live in a parallel dimension which is ruled by sentient machines. The machines control fully automated factories which produce the cars. How, then, are the insects portrayed as VW bugs, and why are there children? How do cars grow up? Why are the tractors and farm equipment portrayed as farm animals? These are the questions I ask myself as I lay awake at night.

Anyway, in my blog post last year, I speculated as to whether or not Pixar had jumped the shark, based on the success of Toy Story 3. Now, I have some reservations about the Cars 2:

1) In my review of Cars, I said "That Mater character really grated on my nerves by the end." Mater was around a little bit too much when I felt more of the focus needed to be on Doc and Sally, but he was still a supporting character. The way I read Cars 2, however, is that Mater is central to the plot, and it looks like Lightning is the supporting character. If this is true, it's going to drive me nuts. Your comic relief CANNOT be central to the plot and he cannot be one-dimensional. Otherwise, you end up with a Star Wars Episode One Jar Jar Binks disaster. Dan L. Whitney is the perfect voice for a backwater hick, but I have to question whether he has the range to carry a Pixar film. And while we're at it, let's talk about Owen Wilson, who was just as bad. I don't so much mind Lightning as a character, but it seemed like Owen was just going through the motions. Just listen to every time Lightning laughs; it sounds so forced. In fact, Mater actually carries Lightning through more than a few scenes. Granted, Owen was going through a serious bout of depression at the time...

2) I have to wonder if they made this film to renew all the merchandising licenses. I called Cars "Pixar's shill film," and even if you go into a Disney Store today, you'll see Cars shit everywhere. Literally, everywhere. And literally, shit! They sell Cars potty chairs and Cars diapers at the Superstore by my place. I'm dead serious. Do you see WALL-E diapers anywhere? No, you don't, even though in the grand scheme of the film, it kind of makes sense! Even Up has diddly dick for merchandise. (Granted, nobody wants to play with misanthropic old man action figures.) Cars merchandise had sales of $1 billion a mere 5 months after the film was released, so who can blame them for trying, right? They also need to promote a new theme park.

3) I think this movie panders to a small demographic. Cars was made five years ago, and its target audience was boys age 1-10. That means a sizeable chunk of Cars' original audience may be too old for this one. The Toy Story franchise was so successful because there were a lot of things to keep the adults into it, and the 3rd film also had nostalgic value for many. Cars, on the other hand, is a good movie to park your kids in front of to keep them busy for a couple of hours while you did something else. However, since the merchandise has managed to hold its own, that leads me to believe that the franchise has renewed its audience through DVD sales.

4) Doc Hudson is not in this one, and that's going to hurt this film more than you can imagine. Doc was the voice of reason who kept this film down to earth. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of over the top car jokes and a big race at the end with no emotion. Cars would have been an epic failure without him. I suppose Slinky was back for Toy Story 3 despite the noticeable difference in voice (Jim Varney vs. Blake Clark), so who knows.

5) John Lasseter was brought on as co-director very late in the game. This leads me to believe that this one suffered from the same quality issues that Toy Story 2 initially suffered from. I suppose that Toy Story 2 became infinitely better once Lasseter took over, but at the same time, Pixar could use the fresh blood. I think a lot of people thought that Lasseter was too complacent with Cars, and in some ways, it comes off as a pet project. And since Cars 2 was conceived by Lasseter when he was in Europe promoting the first Cars, this one could also have that pet project feel. Besides, the guy doesn't even need to direct anymore...he's the head of two animation studios. Why not hand it over to the next director in line?

6) The setting is one of the most appealing aspects of the film, and the real heart of the film is with the bygone town on Route 66. Radiator Springs will be mostly gone in Cars 2, as the settings include 3 different countries. So it's still very much a story of setting, but the focus will be more on the culture shock aspects. Who knows, they might find a way to make it work, but you certainly can't rest on the characters, like the Toy Story sequels did. Woody and Buzz have become timeless, classic characters. Lightning and Mater? They're more like flavours of the week.

So there you have it. The expectations for Cars 2 are very much dialled down, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised. Contrast that with Toy Story 3, where the expectations were sky high and were exceeded. Fortunately for the Pixar awards shelf, Dreamworks is putting forward Kung Fu Panda 2 and Warner Bros. is sending out Crappy Feet 2. Not exactly the best of efforts from either studio.

I'll be back with my review in a week or two.

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