Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, 2011)

Wish fulfillment

I thought Cars 2 wasn't bad.

No, really.

I'm aware of the poor-to-lackluster reviews; I'm aware that it's a sequel. To be fair, it's the first film director and Pixar head John Lasseter has directed since the first Cars, some five years ago; before that he'd done Toy Story 2 (See a pattern here, themewise? Look in his psych eval folder, under the heading: "What I Played with As a Kid"). In between he'd been putting out one Tow Mater short after another, when he isn't busy writing and producing and otherwise finessing other pictures in his Pixar empire.

Which is my roundabout way of saying: one shouldn't be too surprised that he'd do a sequel, or that he'd pick this picture to do a sequel instead of the far more popular, far more critically well-received Toy Story series, of which the third installment had received near-ecstatic reviews (pace spoilsport notices like my own). Simply put, Lasseter, for whatever reason has developed a fond attachment for the character, and decided to put him front and center of his new sequel (and first new work in half a decade) without considering what the effect of ninety minutes of Larry the Cable Guy in a rustbucket carapace might have on an audience (not very positive; one might argue that Tow Mater is the digtally animated equivalent of George Lucas' Jar-Jar Binks in his wildly popular Star Wars prequels (insert note of heavy irony here). 

Not that I'm trying to defend the truck--I agree, he grates incessantly, both as an idea for a character and as a character within the story, and the picture as a whole doesn't exactly make my inner child go somersaulting with joy (have to confess none of the Pixar pictures have managed to do that), but hey, as an idea of what Pixar is truly good at and where its gifts truly lie, this is not a bad showcase at all.

I mean: an Aston Martin chase sequence--a homage not just to any chase sequence, but to the famously inventive pursuit-and-elude sequence in Guy Hamilton's Goldfinger (1964)--arguably the best of the James Bond spy movies (truth to tell, Cars 2 pays homage to not one but two Bond pictures--Goldfinger, and Diamonds are Forever, with its oil-rig climax). It helps that Michael Caine voices the aforementioned Aston, that the chase is more cleverly entertaining than any found in the official Bond movies, and that Caine outdoes even the official Bond actor in terms of suavity and style (Yes, I'm looking at you, Daniel Craig--you may make for a nicely rough-hewn Bond, but your directors and worse the movies themselves have barely registered on the pop imagination). 

Critics claim the movie lacks heart, and what heart it does have is found in the storyline of the least appealing character--the aforementioned tow truck--but I say: what's the big deal? In my book, Pixar's biggest problem is heart: the studio doesn't know how to do it properly, sometimes resorts to lifting techniques from Lasseter's idol Hayao Miyazaki--often with all the tact and skill of a ten-ton truck. 

I won't bother citing specific sequences--I've done that before. I won't bother citing specific titles I find superior to anything Pixar has done; I won't even name certain themes and acts and subject matter Pixar seems too faint of heart to even dare entertain, much less animate. That's an old game, and far too easy to win. I'll just say this: when Pixar strives to merely entertain, to provoke a laugh and do a clever chase sequence and juggle a complicated (kind of) plot in the air and not much more, it actually does better than when it tries to imitate its betters and falls flat on its face. 

Didn't like Cars 2? Sick of all the endless ads for McQueen and Mater marketing and merchandise and the like? I'd recommend not complaining too much, even if you probably will: this in my book is more Pixar's speed--represents the studio at its unpretentious best, or at least most honest. 



Damian Arlyn said...

Nice piece, Noel. I've yet to see CARS 2, but I do plan to when it comes out on DVD.

Also, based on your article I thought you might find this interesting:


Noel Vera said...

Ha. Thanks for the link. I posted my reply there, and here's a copy:

No; I'd say the Pixar cheerleader is shooting with blanks. When Pixar comes up with something like Grave of the Fireflies, then let's talk.

Beyond that--Ghiblie doesn't have the "depth and believability" of Pixar? So Grave isn't as deep and believable as Cars 2? What exactly are we talking about?

And it isn't just Grave--Pom Poko is a history of a genocide. Where's the Pixar equivalent? Horus, the Little Prince is an entire community acting against its adversary--where's the Pixar equivalent? Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro? Where's Pixar's equivalent of an animated Ozu? Whispers of the Heart, or Only Yesterday, a pair of ultrarealistic portraits of Japanese life? My Neighbor the Yamadas--where's Pixar's feature film with the guts to throw away narrative structure, relying on vignettes framed with brief haikus?

It isn't just the 3d aspect, or writing up a program to give realistic expressions. It's voice delivery, gesture, narrative sophistication, and the quiet moment with the quiet detail that gives nothing yet says everything.

When Pixar learns to do this, let's talk.