Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2011

First time for everything

'Cars 2' is Pixar's first official clunker

Cars 2
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: John Lasseter (co-directed by Brad Lewis)
Screenplay: Ben Queen
Starring: The voices of Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro and Bonnie Hunt
Rated G / 1 hour, 52 minutes
(out of four)

Is it rational of me to place the blame for Cars 2's failure on whatever talent scout or booking agent or casting director gave Larry the Cable Guy (nee Daniel Lawrence Whitney) his first big break? To believe that that fateful decision led us inexorably on a path that would culminate in an irritating one-joke comedian with a fake Southern accent toplining a major studio tentpole that would set a stunning low for what had been a nearly unassailable record of quality and success?

Yeah, I think that's rational. Rational enough, at least. Now just hear me out. Here we have Pixar, a paragon of consistency and excellence for the last 16 years, suddenly dropping a turd on an unsuspecting public. With a sequel no one wanted, no less. A sequel driven (no pun intended) by a character that it seems can only be enjoyed by those charmed to death by one-note stereotypes.

Pixar's only real semi-hiccup prior to this movie was, you guessed it, the original Cars - and even it, despite all its drawbacks, had plenty of merits, too. That film and this one share, among other things, Larry the Cable Guy as their [lowest] common denominator. So it stands to reason: If only Mr. Whitney and his altar ego had never gotten that break, perhaps the Cars franchise wouldn't have gotten it in their heads that lazily making one of its primary characters a hackneyed, done-to-death, ign'ant, buck-toothed, Deep South cliché was somehow a good idea. (Let's put it this way: If automobiles had hair, Tow Mater would most definitely have a mullet. I'm half-surprised there's not a Confederate flag emblazoned across his side.)

Then again, I can't really argue with box-office receipts, which this movie is delivering in droves. Quite unusually for Pixar, however, is that Cars 2 seems to be garnering that box-office love by pandering to a younger clientele. What set apart the great Pixar films of recent years (WALL-E, Up, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Toy Story 3) was a sophisticated level of intelligence and artistry that could be appreciated by adults and children alike. In fact, I think I enjoyed most of them more as an adult than I would have as a child.

Cars 2 feels like something casually thrown to the mass summer crowd - more a product than a movie, more a merchandising opportunity than a storytelling experience. Even the shift in focus to Mater (as opposed to Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen) plays into that. Mater is the character most likely to appeal to young kids because it's so broad and silly in that Saturday-morning-cartoon kind of way; and while Lightning is not much different from a thousand other little red sports cars, a rusty tow truck with giant buck teeth has Happy Meal written all over it.

The original Cars worked best as an elegy to an America whose time had past, but fell short in the character department, where it relied almost entirely on broad cultural archetypes. And the inherent obstacle in animating cars, of all things, to look and feel like vivid, lifelike beings is a handicap the film never got past. (To the series' credit, Mater is indeed the most visually expressive of the film's characters.)

Those problems are not corrected in the sequel; in fact, the filmmakers have doubled down. More focus on the most blatant cultural prototype (Mater), plus the addition of a new rival for Lightning McQueen in the form of Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro), an Italian stock car with all the expected Italian mannerisms.

My complaint isn't that the film uses stereotypes and cliches, but that it never gets beyond them. (This being a racing movie and all, I was reminded of Sacha Baron Cohen's hilarious indulgence and subversion of French stereotypes in Talladega Nights. In this case, neither the animators nor the voice actors are able to transcend the material's face value.)

Cars 2 does shift gears (no pun intended) with its story, moving from the world of racing to the world of international espionage, with a Grand Prix racing series used merely as a backdrop, thus relegating Lightning to a small supporting role.

Mater gets inadvertently drawn into a spy game involving two British agents (voiced by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer), and in the process learns something about himself and saves the day yada yada.

I think the idea of using cars in a James Bond-like story is a clever one, and one that could have worked much better than it did. But director John Lasseter and writer Ben Queen do surprisingly little to bring the caper aspects to life. I'd like to say I admire them for actually focusing more on Mater as a character than on the plot itself, but since it's such a poorly conceived character in the first place, that turns out to be more of a drawback.

Somewhere along the line during this film's development, someone thought it would be a good idea to put that character front and center. What Cars 2 proves more than anything is that it needed less Mater, not more.

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