Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Downshift: CARS 2

It is a testament to Pixar’s consistent level of excellence that their Cars 2, a movie I more or less enjoyed watching, feels like a disappointment. It’s a movie that’s fast, colorful, frenetic, and funny, but gone is the deeper feeling we’ve come to expect of productions from this company. This is all surface level whiz-bang silliness, highly watchable and fairly entertaining but also Pixar’s worst effort thus far.

It’s all in what you compare it to, I suppose. After an impressive string of masterworks (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up among them), broken only by some relatively weaker entries that were merely pretty great (A Bug’s Life, Cars), Pixar has built a reputation for consummate craftsmanship, movies that entertain with great flair and originality while also managing to emote with a precision built on surprising grace and beauty. They’re gorgeously animated and layered films with heavy emotional content – a post-apocalyptic romance, a widower fighting the march of time, abandonment – handled tactfully and powerfully.

The first Cars wasn’t one of Pixar’s crowning achievements but it sure was fun. It takes place in a world much like our own but instead of a human populace there are fleets of vehicles with wide eyes staring out of clear windshields and bumpers twisting about like lips. It’s odd and off-putting at first, but in motion and in an involving plot, it all seems so natural. When I pushed toy cars across my childhood bedroom did I ever imagine people inside them? I don’t think so. For all I know, the cars themselves were racing each other all on their own. Cars has an egotistical racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) zoom into Radiator Springs, a crumbling small town, and discover the slower pleasures of roadside Americana. It’s a movie about nostalgia versus modernity that comes down on the side of progress while still arguing for embracing what got us there.

Cars 2 has no deeper ambitions. If anything, it works to refute the stop-and-smell-the-roses relaxed pace of its predecessor. This film is proudly childish as it slams cars around in zippy action sequences driven by a silly round-the-world spy story. Surprisingly satisfying in its dizzying tangles of plot, events are kicked off by British secret agent car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) dangerously and daringly discovering something of grave import aboard a menacing oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Soon enough, we learn that an eccentric billionaire (Eddie Izzard) has decided to promote his new alternative fuel by throwing a World Grand Prix, inviting the best racers from around the world. The race is on, which gets Lightning McQueen and his best friend, hick tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), out of town and circling the globe.

Stops in Japan, France, Italy, and England provide the backbone of the plot, which is mostly an excuse for a diversity of deeply detailed backgrounds. Japan’s Tokyo is rendered as a world of little Hondas zipping around a bustling neon metropolis. A coastal village in Italy is a lush town where a little car speaks with the big voice of legendary Italian actor Franco Nero (!) and the boats in the harbor sit there pleasantly bobbing and blinking. In Paris, Notre Dame is encrusted with winged cars for saints and gargoyles, while in London the royal car family rolls up with their Land Rover bodyguards. It’s so very weird. Unlike the first film, during which I found myself unquestioningly accepting vehicular anthropomorphism, this time around I found myself wondering how cars managed to do just about anything, from building cathedrals to writing with pencils. And why would cars have to go through a metal detector in an airport? It’s a tribute to the nutty mise en scène, the total commitment to a truly strange concept, that endless unanswerable questions encroach every shot from all angles.

At each stop on the world tour, antics and action are around every corner. McQueen deals with his competition, like a hotshot Italian racecar (with a zooming, motor-mouth patter from a crazed and goofy John Turturro) in what ultimately becomes a glorified subplot. Meanwhile, in the main plot McMissile and his curvy assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake sweet, dumb Mater for a fellow spy. The plot’s strictly pro forma, not much more or less than an adequate Bond picture when you get down too it, though I liked the evil cabal made up of, well, I guess I won’t spoil it, but the makes and models of the villains are a fun concept. As the story zooms along, the spies take precedence over the racers.

Mater, with his deep accent and unfortunate misunderstandings, gets increasingly wearing the more the film gets tied to his character and sidelines the infinitely more charming McQueen for far too long. Good in small doses, like his moments of comic relief in the first Cars, Mater is overused here. As much fun as the detail and speed of the humor, the action, and the locations are, less enjoyable are the few attempts to make it all mean something. We’re supposed to laugh at Mater and feel bad about it too. There’s a Life Lesson here, but it feels forced and unconvincing. Nevertheless, Cars 2 has a fast pace and it goes down smoothly. It’s a pleasant diversion. Lots of gags hit their marks, though countless others miss entirely, and the gun-toting, bomb-throwing cars make for unlikely, but often awfully satisfying, action heroes.

After churning out so many outstanding movies it’s a shame to see that here Pixar has slipped in overall quality, but it’s clear from what’s seen on screen that it’s not for lack of trying. It’s incredibly detailed animation with meticulous sound design and mostly fantastic voice work; in typical Pixar fashion it looks and sounds absolutely wonderful. It’s light, inconsequential fun. It feels somewhat difficult to criticize Pixar’s team for trying something different, using their technical skills for something less meaningful. If it seems like I’m holding Pixar to a higher standard than I would any other animated company, it’s only because they’ve conditioned me to expect so much more than they offer here. And yet Cars 2 feels very much like exactly the kind of movie that they wanted to make, a broad, silly, punny, busy kids’ movie. I simply had a passably fun time, is that so bad? In this case, it almost feels that way.

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