It took 12 movies, 16 years, $1.24 billion spent and $6.6 billion earned. But alas, Pixar Animation Studios has finally produced a misfire. It was only a matter of time, given the hyperbolic critical reaction each and every time they drop a film. But as long as they’ve been cranking out feature-length films, they’ve always displayed a meticulous, workmanlike technical skill yet paid deep attention to character depth, compelling dialogue and a strong, beating heart. They were stories for every filmgoer, from every walk of life and every persuasion or taste.
The spectacle of every Pixar remains here, to be sure. “Cars 2” is their most action-packed effort this side of “The Incredibles”, with a near-endless barrage of races, chases, and shoot-outs. (It was only when I was walking out of the theater that the ludicrousness of cars shooting each other dawned upon me.) The animation remains as polished as ever, with a wide array of locales such as the neon-lit Tokyo and the rustic Radiator Springs providing lots of eye candy. If you come to Pixar movies for the pretty pictures you’ll emerge from this one satisfied.
But “Cars 2” is the first product of theirs that feels more narrow in its goals and short-minded in ambition. It’s less bent on depth and more bent on…..well, I’m not entirely sure. Selling merchandise?
They certainly didn’t revisit the franchise for the sake of the characters, seeing as they’re developed as essentially caricatures or running jokes. Pixar even makes the egregious mistake of making hillbilly truck Tow Mater the central figure in the film — probably the most grating, repetitive major character in their entire canon. And they certainly didn’t revisit the franchise to create a universal, all-ages story, as “Cars 2” is watered-down for consumption by little tykes and few others.
The characters are around to forward the plot, not to have any kind of moving arc of their own. This is what’s so jarring about watching “Cars 2”, in that Pixar essentially discards what’s long been the most important element of their films – emotion, dynamics between characters, depth. What have you. They go hand in hand, and they’re gone.
In a world populated by living, talking cars, Lightning McQueen is a celebrity; a hot-shot race-car whose detour into small-town Americana was the subject of the first “Cars”, a charming if admittedly minor work. Here, he’s competing in the World Grand Prix, a world-wide race to determine whether or not he remains on top as a racer.
Accompanying McQueen is his polar-opposite and best-friend, the Larry the Cable Guy-voiced Tow Mater. Mater, however, accidentally stumbles into a gig as a secret agent, working with slick British spy car Finn (voiced by [who else?] Michael Caine) to topple a conspiracy to rig the race and sabotage a prominent clean fuel. It’s a pretty fun set-up, that leads to an admittedly hilarious riff off of old spy movies; think “James Bond”.
I sat in “Cars 2” and never felt anything particularly negative, but that’s not what disturbed me. What disturbed me is that I sat in “Cars 2” never really feeling anything at all; no attachment to the characters, no real awe or excitement, no sadness. Just faint amusement at parts, and a pervading sadness that one of the titans of American filmmaking has lost its way. 11 for 12, Pixar. Your move. C-