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Cars 2: Mechanical Moneymaking

July 24, 2011

I liked the first Cars film. This despite the fact my then 4-year-old son burst into tears at the end because shiny red hero car Lightning McQueen didn’t win the climactic race. Instead he stopped a yard short of the finish line, reversed and pushed a broken-down rival to the chequered flag, which to the mind of a small boy makes about as much sense as Nemo never seeing his dad again, or Woody and Buzz setting fire to Andy on their return to his bedroom.

It’s also despite the fact that the idea of a world populated by sentient cars with single giant amorphous eyeball windscreens unsettles me on a low-frequency existential level. What’s inside the body of these cars? How do they reproduce? How can they build complex machinery with tyre hands? It is a conceptual failing unique in the Pixar universe, which if it has a unifying philosophy is one about small, unexpected and unseen communities and how they relate to our own. In each case the relationship with the human world is crucial – the toys playing inanimate, the monsters coming out at night, Wall-E keeping humanity alive while people get fat in space. The exceptions are A Bug’s Life – about a small world but not about people, and not a great film – and The Incredibles, which is exempt on the grounds of fabulousness.

And, of course, Cars, in which people have been replaced by metal boxes with tongues and which has an unsettling fictional foundation as a result.

Still – I liked the first Cars film, and my son’s reaction is indicative of why. As with all Pixar movies it is a film first and a children’s film second. It successfully aspires to grander things than cars racing or toys being alive or monsters being real. The fender-heavy NASCAR trappings leave me cold, but repeat plays reveal a romantic view of a world left behind by highways and hybrid cars, and, in Paul Newman’s gravelly Doc Hudson, a touching emphasis on respect over victory.

Cars 2 is a film about neither sportsmanship nor nostalgia, but egregious stupidity and go-faster gadgets. In the background Lightning McQueen is again competing in a high-profile race, and again the plot swerves at the last minute to render the result unimportant. But rather than Newman’s cynical, sulking veteran, this time the film’s virtues are hitched to buck-toothed cliché-mobile Mater, the rusted hick with a heart of gold.

All traces of Pixar’s usual subtlety and intelligence have been ruthlessly hammered flat, panel beaten into a nonsense disco of secret agents and super villains into which stumbles Mater’s now much stupider than ever patsy. In isolation the affectionate Bond parody might work – the sequence in which Michael Caine’s Finn McMissile infiltrates an off-shore oil rig is the film’s best, and having the usual grim-faced heavies played by nondescript bangers is a nice touch. But the attempt to weave this thread into the more grounded ‘Red car goes fast’ storyline is a deflating disaster.

So why has it been made? Aside from Toy Story it’s the only Pixar film to receive a sequel. And Toy Story is a unique case – the first sequel was made during Pixar’s infancy, and started as a straight-to-video contractual obligation, the second had its genesis at another crucial point in the studio’s history, during negotiations with long-term distributor Disney when the animation giant threatened to go ahead on a part three without Pixar’s involvement.

In the end this bluff was never called – the contract dispute was ended when Disney bought Pixar and installed its long-term lead John Lasseter as chief creative officer of its own animation studios. Up until I realised I was sort of hating Cars 2, I’d seen this as a good – and certainly very smart – move. Lasseter dissolved the non-Pixar Toy Story 3 and took Disney’s own animation firmly in hand – his criticisms prompted 60% of the already-in-production Meet The Robinsons to be cut, he resurrected Disney’s recently ditched hand-drawn animation, and in this year’s brilliantly judged Tangled the studio had released its finest work in over a decade.

And then Pixar released its worst film, ever – and one which contradicts the implied promise of Lasseter’s own pronouncement that “If we have a good story, we’ll do a sequel.” So what happened? Cars was always Lasseter’s baby (inspired by his love of cars in general and a family road trip in particular) and it could just be  blind spot for overindulgence. More likely, though, this is the inevitable kick-back to a story that so far seemed all good news – Disney not simply buying Pixar, but using its enthusiasm and expertise to reinvigorate its own animation department in an unusual piece of corporate common sense. The original Cars made $460 million worldwide – a medium hit for Pixar, and, crucially, nothing compared to the $8 billion dollars in merchandising the film has earned since.

I don’t begrudge this merchandising – a good deal of that $8 billion in tin cars lives in my house, and for £3.99 they’re good, sturdy toys that have weathered five years of Piston Cup drama and horrendous pile-ups remarkably well. But while the original line started out brash and bold – Lightning! Mater! Doc! – it eventually descended to fairly brazen levels of kid collection fetish exploitation – That Guy From The Background In That Race! Lightning With Some Dust On Him! Even while watching Cars 2 it seemed potential merchandising leverage was driving the story, not the other way round – Mater quick-changing into half a dozen disguises in as many seconds, turbo-jets and machine guns popping from bodywork and demanding their own die-cast model. In James B. Stewart’s Disney War the company’s merchandising division is shown to have an influence at the pre-script creative stage (“We’ve never done a heffalump” an exec says of their Winnie The Pooh spin-off, “Consumer products wants more characters”). It’s the sort of depressing but necessary profit-driving mechanism you’d hope might have been suppressed by Lasseter’s revolution. On the evidence of Cars 2, that’s not the case.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2011 3:04 pm

    Great article. I love all things cars and motorsport, and yet Cars was never an enjoyable experience for me. Love Pixar and animation but Cars has never grown on me.

    Cars 2 thus far looks patently like a cash-in rather than an organic extenuation of the original story and premise. Pity, as Pixar has very, very few duds and all the seqquels tend to be well thought out and ONLY commissioned if they add value to the brand.

    Maybe Cars 2 was just an excuse for Lassiter to meet Sir Michael Caine?!

  2. July 24, 2011 5:41 pm

    I have a real problem with the idea that Cars’ cars are meant to have built an entire society with their tyre hands. For me, it even eclipses the fact that the sub-Doc Hollywood storyline is really boring. I like the production design, though – the buttes that look like mechanical components and the animation of cars in motion really sings. No interest at all in this new one – and so far the kids seem to be oblivious to it, a situation we’ll carefully try to maintain.

    By the way, here’s an insight into Lasseter – for all his evident talent in other films, he comes across as a hug-crazy cheeseball, and I couldn’t stop watching it until its bitter end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5HN3-l_f-U

  3. July 27, 2011 12:03 am

    I’m going to watch that Lasseter thing now. I’ve been looking for an excuse not to go to bed and that can be it.

    The new movie looks pretty astonishing, actually. The opening is a pre-credits sequence Bond thing with Michael Caine’s car set at sea. “The waves look rich and ominous,” I thought, and later read they were made with all-new WATER TECHNOLOGY. Some of the Japanese city stuff is incredible too. And I remember watching the first film and thinking “Holy heck the cars look amazing”.

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