June 24, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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CARS 2 – Watch It At Home:  Pixar Shifts Into Second Gear

CARS 2 is preceded by a short subject, the first in what’s intended as a series called Toy Story Toons.  Entitled Hawaiian Vacation, it features all the familiar characters and voices, runs about 10 minutes, and effortlessly recaptures the joy, wit and grace of its predecessors.  If you see it, cherish those minutes, because after it’s over, Cars 2 begins.

And with that, one of the greatest streaks in motion picture history comes to an end.  All good things, they say, will do that:  after 15 consecutive weeks in 1997-98, Titanic was no longer #1 at the boxoffice; 26 years following its 1939 opening, Gone With the Wind gave up its crown of most successful film ever (unadjusted for inflation) to The Sound of Music.  And now: after 16 years, 11 brilliant feature films, 6 of the 10 Best Animated Feature Oscars awarded thus far (not to mention 2 Best Picture nominees) and billions of dollars truly earned, Pixar, mighty Pixar, has… bunted to first.

It would be neater to say that they’ve struck out, but not quite accurate:  It is Pixar, after all, so Cars 2 is often visually glorious, from spectacular cityscapes to tiny, marvelous details.  But it’s the first film the studio has made that feels dramatically lazy and assembled for commercial reasons, with a “soul” applied by rote–it’s their first “product.”  If Pixar’s unspoken slogan has always been the animation version of “It’s Not TV.  It’s HBO,” Cars 2 is TV.  Which was probably inevitable, but still pretty damn depressing to watch

Although formally Cars 2 is of course a sequel to its 2006 forebear, it’s actually a reconfiguring of the original.  The main character this time is Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), the small-town tow truck from Radiator Springs who became race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson)’s best friend.  Cars 2 is an action comedy, and one of a familiar sort, where the slow-witted (but pure of heart) Mater is embroiled in an espionage plot, mistaken for a master spy by new characters Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).  This is the kind of thing Bob Hope did in My Favorite Spy in 1951, and Get Smart and The Pink Panther series are variations that date back 50 years.  Laboriously we have to wait for almost the entire movie before Mater can understand that the spies think he’s one of them and he can convince them he’s not, and it was funnier when Hope did it.  Meanwhile there are huge action sequences that could have come out of last year’s G.I. Joe movie.

All of this would have been bearable if behind the story, Cars 2 had the kind of originality and heart that’s been a hallmark of every other Pixar film, but this is just an empty romp, with an instantly obvious “surprise” villain and predictable jokes. (There’s even something unpleasant about the story as it’s revealed–mild spoiler alert–that the evil cars are a pack of jealous clunker models like Pacers and Yugos; it’s like a version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer where the Island of Misfit Toys hatches a plot to kill Santa.)  As a result, even though Cars 2 is the most frenetically paced of any Pixar movie, it’s also the most tedious, because like any other hollow action movie, it just grinds its way from giant set-piece to set-piece; if Michael Bay ever directed an animated film, it would look like Cars 2.

But in fact, this isn’t just a Pixar movie, but one personally directed by John Lasseter, which makes its vacuousness even more of a shock (Brad Lewis is credited as “co-director”); the script is by Ben Queen, with Lasseter, Lewis and Dan Fogelman sharing the story credit.  This is Lasseter’s first film as director since the original Cars in 2006, after which he took on heavy corporate responsibilities at Disney.  Pixar has become a multi-billion dollar business (Cars was a successful movie, but it became a financial bonanza through merchandising sales) that is now very much in the sequel business, with Monsters University upcoming.  Did any of that contribute to the routine feel of this film?  That seems like too easy an answer, especially since the masterful, heartfelt Toy Story 3 was only a year ago.

There are certainly things to appreciate in Cars 2.  The story is set against the backdrop of a series of 3 Grand Prix auto races in Tokyo, Italy and London, organized by alternative fuel tycoon Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) and all these locations are spectacularly imagined in the film’s car-centric universe.  (In Japan, there are kabuki, sumo and geisha cars.)  The sheer scale of the number and varieties of vehicles is sometimes breathtaking.  Almost alone among recent 3D films, the images are bright and clear (although the 3D isn’t really necessary).  There’s also a surprisingly political point of view in the film’s ending.  The movie isn’t a waste of money; it will earn its billions from global boxoffice and toys.   But the gasps it provokes are of a markedly lesser kind than the ones Pixar has in the past.

Along with the marvelous Toy Story Toon short, there’s another promising sign before Cars 2 begins:  the first teaser trailer for Pixar’s upcoming Brave, which will open next summer.  Set in ancient Scotland, with a female protagonist, it looks ambitious, distinctive… like a real Pixar movie.

(CARS 2 – Disney/Pixar – G – 102 minutes – Director:  John Lasseter – Script:  Ben Queen – Cast:  Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."