Monday 18 June 2012

Cars 2 - One Year On

Pixar's thirteenth feature film, Brave, is opening in US theatres this Friday, 22nd June, and the embargo has been lifted, thus reviews are flooding onto the Internet, and they're a mixed bag. There are none that I've seen that cite Brave as a bad film, nearly all of them say, in fact, that it is very good, that it is gorgeously animated, has a wonderful score and great characters, but that the story is unoriginal - more Disney than Pixar. The most balanced and reasonable review I've read is that of Bryko from Upcoming Pixar, who says:

"Ultimately, one has to question: if a film makes you laugh, shed a tear, and stay on the edge of your seat, is it really at fault for lacking originality? Even if it’s not Pixar’s best movie to date, does it really matter? The film will undoubtedly be a hit with audiences worldwide with its boundless appeal and beauty; even with a fairly predictable story, Brave is a winner."

So, despite some quibbles, general consensus is that Brave is still a good film, even if it's not Pixar's finest. We've been down this road before though, and much criticism was directed, last year, at Cars 2. The sequel that nobody was particularly clamouring for, Cars 2 was often maligned as being "the first bad Pixar film"; this is simply not the case. I watched Cars 2 again yesterday, and thought I'd offer up my thoughts, in hindsight, one year on.

The problem with the reviews for Cars 2 was that very, very few of them said that it was a bad film, basically saying "this is a pretty good film, but it's not as good as the other Pixar films, so I'm going to rate it badly". This is ridiculous, the film should be reviewed on its own merits, not on how well it stacks up to Pixar's previous efforts. Of course Cars 2 is going to seem weak by comparison, it doesn't pack the same emotional punch as Up or Toy Story 3, but then, did you expect it to? Does that make it a bad film? Does the fact that it's not as good as two Best Picture nominated films means it warrants criticism? No. Cars 2 may not have been Pixar's finest hour, but it was by no stretch of the imagination a bad film.

Cars 2 picks up after the original Cars, with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), now a 4 time Piston Cup winner, taking a back seat to Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). When the pair jet off around the world to take part in the inaugural World Grand Prix, Mater is inadvertently drawn into a game of international espionage with direct ramifications on the race and on Lightning. This introduces us to a swarm of new characters, including suave 007-esque spy-car, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), and the somewhat bland spy/love-interest for Mater, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).

The characters introduced here are, largely, very good, with Finn McMissile and racer Francesco Bernoulli acting as particular highlights. One criticism that can justifiably be levied at Cars 2 though, is that it relegates a lot of the characters that we loved in Cars to far more minor roles - almost making the first film insignificant. There is little continuation of the relationship between Sally and Lightning, and a lot of the Radiator Springs group are barely even seen. The very fast paced, frenetic tone of the high-action spy film also means that Cars 2 almost completely disregards the moral messages of slowing down to enjoy life that the first Cars stressed so heavily. This isn't that terrible though, as it means that Cars 2 is a lot more fun to watch; fast paced and exciting, its 106 minutes fly by and you will enjoy almost every minute of it. As said, Lightning is no longer the main character, Mater is the focus, and this is not necessarily a bad choice given that Lightning wasn't the most likeable character in the world the first time round. But, Mater isn't vastly better. Sure, he has an endearing charm and ineptitude to him, but at times he can easily come off as flippant and irritating - not the best trait for a character that a film depends on.

However, there is substantial growth in the relationship of Lightning and Mater. The best-friend dynamic established the first time round in 2006 is put under pressure here, and this is more of a bromance film than anything else. Whilst a lot of the emotional moments between Mater and Holley come off as trite and forced, the relationship between Mater and Lightning feels very real and natural - it provides the emotional grounding for the film. Its spy-themed story is also one of Pixar's most complex stories to date (proving that this isn't just a kid's film) and has as many twists and turns as the best James Bond films. The super-fast pace means that some characters can be a bit one-dimensional, but it also provides a plethora of excitement, fun and laughs that should please all.

Because that is another important point, Cars 2 is riotously funny. It's one of Pixar's funniest films to date - perhaps their funniest after Pete Docter's Monsters, Inc. and Up - and blends its comic characters deftly with the high-stakes and hugely exciting action scenes. A very Bond-esque score by Pixar favourite Michael Giacchino also boosts a very fun, very authentic feeling spy film, that just so happens to have cars cast as its characters. The story isn't as nuanced or as complex as other Pixar efforts, but is still enjoyable all the same.

Another huge plus for Cars 2 is its animation. Save for Brave, the animation in Cars 2 is Pixar's finest yet. An utterly breathtaking film in terms of picture quality; the bright lights of Tokyo, and the visceral detail in the elaborate old buildings in Italy, combined with the impressive Car-ification of London are all astonishingly well rendered, and if you're watching this on Blu Ray, you're going to be almost left open-jawed at the sheer incredibility of the animation.

The crux of it is, Cars 2 is not the best film Pixar have produced - not close - but that certainly doesn't make it a bad film. Even if this was a bad Pixar film, it would still likely be better than an awful lot of animated releases, but this isn't a bad Pixar film, it's just not a fantastic one. Sure, it's not as powerful as their previous efforts, but that's not to say it has no heart, it has quite a lot, it's just not as tear-inducing or poignant as Toy Story 3, but maybe that's a good thing. We needed a reprieve, something a little more light-hearted, after TS3 slaughtered me emotionally (leaving me in tears for about 70 minutes of the 95 minute film), I don't think I could take another emotional thrashing from Pixar that soon. It acted as a nice rest, to set up for when Brave inevitably reduces me to tears.

The original Cars is probably a better film, in terms of storytelling and characters, than Cars 2, but it's a little slow, and I know which film I'd rather watch. That said, I think in my efforts to try and put over how off-kilter the majority of Cars 2 reviews were, I was a little too enthused in the other direction in giving it a 9/10. It is a very good film, very fun, but I'd say it's more suited to an 8/10. But, I still stick by what I said then:

"It suffers from comparison, like Cars 1, anyone going into Cars 2 expecting the emotional resonance or poignancy of Toy Story 3 or of Up is, simply put, an idiot. Enjoy Cars 2 for what it is, a rollicking, fast paced, enjoyable and genuinely great spy film that, if anything, marks a definitive improvement on the original. Pixar is too good to make a bad film and is too good to have its films suffer from such unnecessarily scathing reviews that Cars 2 has been received to."

Much like the first Cars, Cars 2 is severely underrated, sure, it's not as good as The Incredibles or WALL E, but, contrary to the prevailing opinion at the time, that does not warrant a negative review. It's very easy to judge people's work, even easier to judge it negatively, especially when we're used to such a high standard from Pixar, but we should, instead, assess each film on its own merits; we should try to appreciate it for what it does right, rather than slam it for what it does wrong. To round off, I'll leave you with what Pixar themselves said, via Anton Ego, in Ratatouille:

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."


  1. I completely agree with your comment on, "This is ridiculous, the film should be reviewed on its own merits, not on how well it stacks up to Pixar's previous efforts." I have argued with people about this point over and over from the moment I saw the movie. I told everyone I knew that when they were going to see the movie to just have fun and don't expect to cry - it's a spy movie after all.

    The one point you had that I hadn't actually thought of before was when you mention that the movie basically reduced the Cars 1 characters we've grown to love down to almost nothing (other than a few). I agree completely - although, like you also mentioned, the new characters are completely amazing as well. For someone who's more closed-minded though, this could affect them negatively.

    Great post!

    Pixar Post - T.J.

  2. Yeah, I loved Cars 2; admittedly, it wasn't my favourite Pixar film, but, a year on, I still love watching it! It has a very different feel to it, it's not what we're used to from Pixar, and I do kind of like that - I admire them changing things from time to time.

    Sure, it wasn't a very emotional film, but it still had heart. But, yeah, I was kind of miffed at how it disregarded Cars 1 a bit. I'm a sucker for Finn though.

    Thanks for the feedback and the visit, T.J.!