Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cars 2

There's an aching sadness and cynical sting I encountered exiting the theater for Cars 2, the first feature length animated feature from the all mighty Pixar that not only sucks but calls into question (for the very first time) the motives behind one of, perhaps the only, the great cinematic institutions in modern filmmaker.  The original Cars opened five years ago sandwiched between the great Brad Bird\Pixar concoctions The Incredibles two years before and Ratatouille the year after, it inevitably seemed like the weakest link in a fine legacy.  Yet with it's Route 66 nostalgia-soaked infusion of NASCAR, slightly awkward anthropomorphism and a fine vocal presence of the quietly graceful but authoritative Paul Newman, the original film, while flimsy, had a small charm of its own.  It was slight for sure, but not totally un-welcomed.  The sequel, a silly and throwaway affair, appears almost unrecognizable in terms of the great standard the company has set up for itself in their twenty-five year history.  What's missing is that sense of discovery, the un-rushed delicacy of finely crafted story brought to (near) life by indelible and soulful characters, the mad rush of adventure and magic infused with whimsy and intelligence, and the emotional response of all these elements melding together.  In an alienating, sadly full circle moment, director John Lasseter, the pioneer and man behind Toy Story, which earned him a special Oscar is also at the helm of his company's least.  It would be fair to say that most of the best original stories in modern filmmaker come courtesy of the artisans at Pixar Animation Studios.

Unfortunately not this time, and for the first time it appears that dollar signs were the only thing keeping this machine afloat.  Time has passed since the first Cars, and lots have changed.  First off the original setting, a make believe slice of old school-blue state Americana named Radiator Springs gets shafted right away in favor of more internationally friendly locales (perhaps to better sell the film in foreign markets, says the skeptic in me, one can read into that whatever one would like to.) Our race car hero Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) is off on a globe-trotting adventure all over the world, including Japan, Paris, Italy and England.  Also sidelined from the first film are the gentle American rhythms in favor a louder, higher-octane, more grandiose (and increasing ludicrous) story, involving espionage and a strange automotive infusion of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, mixed with a subtle eco-friendly sermon wrapped around a predictable and stuffy be-your-own-car message.  The biggest sidestep, and the least attractive move made by Pixar in it's history, was giving center stage to McQueen's dim bulb tow truck pal Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy); the first Cars, the role was thankfully diluted enough to almost be seen as charming, here (and perhaps in a nod to appease the comic's blue-state fan base; again I could very well be wrong) his one-note buffoonery is the catalyst for the movie.  Most of the bad stench of the film comes along with the silly character of Mater, now given unnecessary star treatment.

The story itself is almost irrelevant and quickly forgotten.  It's harmless for sure, but that again is a failure from a company with such a grounded and firm reputation of mixing story with character so expertly.  We globe-trot with Lightning McQueen, here meeting his match in an arrogant Italian competitor named Francesco Bernoulli (amusingly voiced by John Turturro), both racing in the international World Grand Prix.  There's also some shifty and powerful (if less glossy) cars trying to throw the race with motives that might have seemed clever in a pitch meeting but fail to spark any ignitions on execution.  Enter super-spy Finn McMissile (voiced with classy precision by Michael Caine), and a Miss Moneypenny-like neophyte spy named Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer.)  There's a silly case of mistaken identity, coincidentally which starts with what may be Pixar's first scatological joke, with a punchline that coarsely hits in a bathroom.  To make a long story short somehow Mater becomes a spy, and the movie grows tired and weak and stagnant.

I had a thought about halfway through, what if we dumped the silly car anthropomorphism altogether, threw Mater off a bridge, abandoned Lightning McQueen (the film does a fairly good job of that anyhow), kept Michael Caine and John Turturro, even Emily Mortimer, had them transform into people, or dinosaurs, or rats, or superheros, or whatever, threw out the tired and unfunny script full of stale joke and rote commentary.  We could keep the spy genre going...there's a few nifty and playful stunts, and while Pixar ran out of gas early on this one, the visuals are impeccable...maybe then there would be something, if not noteworthy, than perhaps fun.  Instead we get a sad, listless and increasingly desperate film.  C-

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