John Lasseter—he of the illustrious, awe-inspiring career with Pixar Animation Studios—has produced some truly great films for that studio over the years, not least of which were the Toy Story films. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, of course, seeing as how Pixar’s the gold-standard as far as cinematic animation goes these days, but it’s also not to say that Lasseter’s above making missteps. Prior to seeing Cars 2 (recently out on Blu-ray), I wasn’t convinced that this was a sequel worth making, as the original Cars—beloved as it is by kids and Larry The Cable Guy enthusiasts everywhere—simply wasn’t my cup of tea. So, is Cars 2 a misstep, or is it another fine addition to the Lasseter canon? Hit the jump for my review of Cars 2 on Blu-ray.
In the past, I’ve reviewed a number of Pixar films without ever missing a beat: generally, those reviews write themselves, thanks to the consistent writing, voice-work, and animation that goes into this studio’s films. When one signs up to watch a Pixar film, one can generally be certain that they’re in good hands. The word “generally” is used in the previous sentence for one reason and one reason only: John Lassiter’s Cars franchise.
My feelings regarding the Cars films are complicated– far moreso than my opinions regarding the rest of Pixar’s filmography, to be sure–but I’m going to do my best to work through them here. Before I get into all that, though, I can offer you a Cliff’s Notes version on Lasseter’s Cars sequel (y’know, for those of you who don’t care to read the thoughts of a stranger trying to work through their issues regarding animated, celebrity-voiced, anthropomorphic vehicles): if you enjoyed the first Cars, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Similarly, if–like me– your feelings towards Cars were mixed, you can safely assume that they’ll continued to be mixed while watching this installment.
First of all, I’m troubled by the world established in the Cars films. There’s simply too much going on that I’m unclear on. I’ve seen this opinion echoed in some of the reviews written by my online brethren, and I’ve sympathized every time I’ve seen that opinion voiced: why, for instance, do the vehicles in this world sometimes use other vehicles to get around? What do these things eat? Who made them, and why? You might say that—in a film like this—that these are thoughts not worth having, issues best left unexplored. But when every other Pixar film has delivered a (seemingly) fully-realized world developed with what appears to be consistent reasoning and forethought (in other words: they might be fantastical, but they always make sense), I find the Cars films to be the opposite: there are things happening here that—when you stop and think about ‘em– are so bizarre, they take me right outta the movie.
Secondly, I do not find anything (literally, anything) that Larry The Cable Guy does to be funny. I don’t like his face, I don’t like his stand-up material, I don’t like his movies, his TV shows, the absurd things he writes in his “books”, the fact that Larry The Cable Guy—the character—is a character even though he’s presented as a “real” guy, and on and on. I could sit here and hammer out 2,000 words on why I dislike this dude so much, but let’s just make it easy on the both of us by saying that I don’t enjoy anything that Larry The Cable Guy does for the same reason that many people don’t enjoy what Larry The Cable Guy does…and that includes voicing Mater in the Cars films.
In Cars 2, Mater’s given an even bigger role than he was given in the first film—Mater gets dragged into a James Bond-like plot involving espionage (and, in a nearly-a-saving-grace bit of voice-casting, gets involved with a James Bond-like car voiced by Michael Caine) while his friend Lightning McQueen (a name that still shrieks “DRAG QUEEEEN” to me) heads towards glory in the World Grand Prix—and, given my feelings about Larry The Cable Guy, that means that Car 2’s starting from a deficit with me before the first frame’s even rolled. Luckily, I was aware of LTCG’s enhanced role before popping the Blu-ray into my PS3: had I been caught unawares, I would have been truly annoyed.
Finally, I find that the Cars films—and particularly the second installment—set off my “Bullshit Merchandising” alarms in a way that many other kids’ films do…but that Pixar films rarely do. One of my biggest complaints about modern kids’ movies (and, hell, some adult films) is that they seem borne from a need to sell toys more than from a need to tell a story. It’s a testament to Pixar’s abilities as a studio to produce an entire trilogy about toys without causing these bells to go off in my head, but I still don’t feel that they’ve achieved the same with the Cars franchise: when I watch these films, I just imagine greasy, slick-haired Disney execs counting piles of money and giving the greenlight to another round of cheap, plastic merchandise to market towards kids in-between Saturday morning cartoons. You might say that Lasseter’s a big car guy, and that he really does love these machines we build enough to create and entire world where they’re the “people”, but…I simply can’t get on that same page. From the first time I was made aware of a Cars film until now, I’ve never been able to shake this feeling. Sorry, folks.
But, hey, it ain’t all doom and gloom: while I’m not going to recommend Cars 2 in the same way that I’d recommend, say, Toy Story 3 or Monsters Inc. or Up or The Incredibles, I will say that the film looks amazing, and that I did find the script funnier than I did in the first one (which I still say smacks of Doc Hollywood). I liked that Lasseter—along with writer Ben Queen—showed us more the Cars’ world (even if I don’t like this particular world and the rules that seem to govern it, I’d rather see more of it than being stuck in the Podunk town of Radiator Springs, which is where the majority of the first film took place), and I definitely enjoyed the addition of Michael Caine to the cast. Furthermore, there’s no doubt that kids will love the everloving shit out of this movie, so I’d wholeheartedly recommend it if you’re looking for something to distract the little ones with.
But for the rest of us—the film geeks without kids that still go to Pixar films just as surely as we attend each new Coen Brothers opening, or each new Tarantino joint—I can’t say that this is one of Pixar’s best efforts, and I can’t say that I’d bother unless you really dug the first film. The widening of the Cars world did add enough scope to make this story (seemingly) worth telling, but the characters and the rules governing the world itself are still…well, the same.
This is a Pixar Blu-ray release, so you know it’s going to look fantastic. The image is razor-sharp, the sound’s fantastic (some of the racing sequences will sound great on your surround-sound system). As for the extras, well… thing is, I got the not-super-special-edition of the disc, which contains a Blu-ray and a DVD and a whole lot less extras than a Pixar film generally contains. But! The thing’s still got a couple truly great additions, and one of them’s a must-own: the first is a directors’ commentary with Lasseter; the second is the absolutely-fantastic-holy-crap-you-gotta-see-this-right-now Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation short. There’s another short on here—centered around (shudder) Mater—but for me, that wouldn’t be considered a “selling point”.
So, in the end—my complicated feelings regarding the franchise having been addressed—this review’s bottom line turns out to be quite easily essayed: if you liked the first Cars, check this out. If not, don’t bother. See? That wasn’t so hard after all.
My grade? B- (whereas most Pixar films are in the A to A+ range)