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Non-Review Review: Cars 2

Cars 2 is a Pixar film that runs on an engine, rather than on heart. Technically, it’s magnificent. It’s well put together, features a winning cast, a lot of quite wonderful jokes and absolutely stunning action movies. However, the movie fails to make even the most basic of emotional connections. We’re always watching a bunch of cool cars doing cool car stuff, but we never feel good or bad about it. Even when a handful of cars meet tragic ends over the course of the movie, we never feel bad about it – we don’t really care about them, so we’re never concerned at the dangers they face. It’s a shame, because it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of animation, it’s just missing that wonderful soul that Pixar seems to install with its movies as standard.

Lightning, cameras, action!

There’s a strange moment early on where Lightening McQueen and his trusty friend, Tow Mater, visit the old Doc Hudson museum in Radiator Springs. Hudson was, if you’ll recall, the old car played by Paul Newman in the original film. Newman has since passed on, and McQueen and Mater do pause to reflect on their old friend, with news that a major racing trophy has been named after the iconic speedster.

Any other Pixar film would allow a moment like this to linger, reflecting on a friend who meant a lot, and an icon who has passed into memory but will live on, forever. Instead, it seems like it’s done mostly out of a sense of obligation rather than any genuine affection, and the comments from the pair are bland commentary at best. At this point, any other Pixar film would have had me shedding a tear. Instead, this one just seemed to be just going through the motions.

What of Pixar's track record?

There’s a torture scene later on in the film, which feels just as perfunctory. I’m not expecting “enhanced interrogation techniques” or anything so serious – I know this is a movie aimed at kids – but something on par with the sense of menace that Finding Nemo or Toy Story evoked with effortless skill. Instead, the scene is filled with awkward exposition. When the victim is finally put out of their misery, the shot used is technically and wonderfully composed (because we don’t want to scar the children watching), but there’s no sense of remorse for the poor car or even brewing hatred for the evil bad guys – its just ready for us to move on to the next thing.

Being entirely honest, though, that sort of emotional connection isn’t necessary for a great animated film. I’d argue that it’s required for a truly classic piece of animation, but we’re splitting hairs. It’s possible for Cars 2 to be a great film without carrying the same weight that all of Pixar’s earlier films carried. However, I’m not entirely convinced that the sequel really gets to that level. For all the top notch work that the production crew and voice cast do to imbue the film with a sense of life, it just feels a little bit too safe, a little bit by-the-numbers.

Have the wheels come off?

The race scenes are great, an example of how CGI animation works really well with 3D, and also proof of high-quality sound mixing. You feel it as the cars go around the car at ridiculous speeds, even if you don’t really care about the cars themselves. There’s a rather stunning opening sequence featuring the British spy car Finn McMissile, played brilliantly by Michael Caine, which brilliantly brings to mind the sort of classy Sean Connery James Bond action sequences. Indeed, he’s inspired by the Aston Martin from Goldfinger, and the action sequence calls to mind one of those great opening scenes from early in the franchise. I’m disappointed that, as McMissile makes his impossible escape in a form that will remind viewers of The Spy Who Loved Me, he doesn’t utter a badass British one-liner, but it’s a very minor complaint.

The wonderful Pixar wit is also on full display here. “Finn McMissile,” the spy introduces himself, “British Intelligence.” His colleague responds, “Tow Mater, Average Intelligence.” There are some other nice touches and moments on display here, from a surreal trip to a Cars version of Tokyo (where Lightning’s brand has been superimposed on any number of products like “McCleen” and tires are sold from vending machines) through to an Italian village that looks to be modelled on the one from The Godfather, with Topansino substituting for Don Thomasino. These moments are great, and frequent enough to prevent the movie ever becoming too clunky for its own good, but they can’t add up to a good movie on their own.

The square's been turned into a public carpack...

I think the biggest problem with the movie is probably one that kids are going to love. Quite simply, Tow Mater is the leading character of this sequel, not Lightning McQueen. The kids seem to love the rusty old tow truck, even though he’s pretty much a one-note character who works best as part of the supporting cast. On the other hand, I suppose the same could be true of McQueen. Anyway, the movie is essentially a series of awkward misadventures in which Mater travels to foreign lands, embarrasses his friends, and gets mistaken as an improbably brilliant American super-spy. In fairness, a lot of this works as well as one might expect, but Mater doesn’t really have enough depth to carry the film.

I think the main difference between this film and the original is the fact that McQueen had a journey to make in the first film, but Mater doesn’t change at all over the course of this film. He starts out as a loud, obnoxious and insulting American tow trunk who is always willing to cause a scene… and ends the movie pretty much the same way. His own personal foibles (a.) send McQueen half-way across the globe despite the fact he wants some time to himself, (b.) get an American spy killed, (c.) embarrass McQueen in front of everyone, and (d.) cost McQueen a championship race.

Hope they brought car-ry luggage...

However, the moral seems to be that everyone else needs to be more accepting of Mater, the loud and proud tow truck that he is. It’s a very strange moral for a company that was willing to work “if everybody’s special, then no one is” into The Incredibles, as it forces McQueen to change and accept that he is entirely wrong. Sure, if McQueen had been overly harsh to Mater, the idea that he should accept his friend for who he is might be an uplifting moral, but McQueen’s requests that (a.) Mater calm down a bit while at a posh night out, and (b.) stay off the line with his inane chatter, both seem perfectly reasonable (especially given how politely they are initially phrased and how often they had to be repeated).

“Accept your friends no matter what,” sounds like a perfectly good moral on paper, but it lacks the nuance one expects from Pixar and doesn’t hold true. I’ve always loved the studio’s attempts to be honest and frank with its audience, and that feels like a bit of a bland statement. We’ve all had friends who insist on being the centre of attention, or show little respect for the culture or customs of other countries – and I think we all know that the longer we grit our teeth the more uncomfortable that eventual discussion becomes. It seems far more reasonable that Mater might have to change (as well) and that the movie could have a slightly different conclusion, “Don’t let arguments come between friends, but do attempt to respect one another.” That way both McQueen and Mater could learn something, rather than McQueen being in the wrong seemingly based solely. on the fact this isn’t his film.

It's a beautifully animated car-toon...

Cars 2 isn’t a bad little film. I’m sure the kids at the cinema with me loved it. However, it does lack that sophistication and development that we really take for granted from the Pixar team. In fact, the opening Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation short demonstrated that you can have the same wonderful fun while keeping the company’s trademark heart. Ah well, roll on Brave!

7 Responses

  1. I usually wind up missing Pixar films in theaters. For once, I hear, I’m not missing anything.

  2. Lights, Camera and action then beautiful piece of animation. Love this Pixar movie in theaters !!

  3. Very interesting blog…

  4. Ultimate animation! I like it. Thanks for sharing.

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