Cars 2 Little

When last we left Pixar, they had amazed and delighted audiences all over the world with “cartoons” about loss, change, and death.

When last we left Cars, Pixar had been in the throes of negotiation with Disney to either love them or leave them – requiring a film that would be successful, but maybe not too successful, lest they give what could have been their ex-distributor another overly valuable copyright.

Complicating things even further, one of Pixar’s leading creative lights, Joe Ranft, was killed during production of the original Cars … in a tragic auto accident.

Now comes Cars 2, with Pixar unleashed from its studio worries (Disney having bought them) or any deep concerns. And it’s obvious that Pixar mastermind, and Cars 2 co-director, John Lasseter, is in a playful mood – setting this new cartoon as a bridge between the company’s phases.

After the triumph of Up and Toy Story 3, Cars 2 goes through the motions of establishing emotional and cultural heft, but they’re really only window dressing to a self-referencing jaunt — made all the more impressive by its sheer, nearly mind-boggling, technical achievement.

Lasseter and his co-director, Brad Lewis (the producer of Ratatouille) have created a literal world tour of driving and flying machines where the in-jokes are smarter and more enjoyable than the story itself. That story is yet another pastiche of 007 (ground Pixar had super-heroically trodden in The Incredibles), done in such a way that recalls the 007 clones and knock-offs more than Bond.

In fact, composer Michael Giacchino seemingly steers clear of the Bond music tropes he created for The Incredibles in favor of the lighter themes reminiscent of The Man from UNCLE, Our Man Flint, and even I Spy (which took a similar globe-trotting approach). This Bond-not-Bond tact led to the squashing of a treasured rumor: that each of the actors who played 007 would be heard as cameo voices in this production. That, sadly, doesn’t occur.

Instead, Michael Caine, the man who played Harry Palmer in such “anti-Bond” thrillers as The Ipcress File, is featured as British sedan secret agent Finn McMissile in a wacky sports car spy plot whose convolutedness could have been funnier if the filmmakers had just pushed it a scooch more. It also features an ecological undercurrent about alternate fuels that degenerates into a muddled mixed message.

But the plot’s got nothing on the story, supposedly concentrating on how good ol’ tow truck Mater should “be himself,” which is an odd moral considering that the actual message appears to be “if you’re an unaware, selfish, stupid character, stay that way. Don’t, under any circumstances, change for the better. It’s okay, it’ll all turn out somehow.”

It’s not really that bad, but suffice to stay, scripting niceties is not high on the production’s list of priorities. Instead, the crew poured all its devotion into the film’s look, which is really astonishing. The worldwide mise-en-scene is so rich and encompassing that any and all screenplay short-comings (by Ben Queen, creator of TV’s deservedly short-lived series, Drive) can be teeth-clenchingly forgiven because it’s a cartoon for kids … right? Right?!

Funny, that’s not the way Pixar made its reputation. But hey, I guess I should cut them some slack. If they want to slum a bit in the writing department, they’ve earned it. Besides, at 113 minutes, it’s one of the studio’s longest efforts, and is never at a loss for something to look at, but it is a clear “treading water” and “palette cleanser” picture, rather than one of the studio’s classics.

That much was made clear by the coming attraction trailer for Pixar’s challenging 2012 release: Brave (about a Scottish princess). That represented the corporation’s future. It’s past was eulogized with Cars 2’s pre-film short: Hawaiian Vacation, a slight six-minute Toy Story 3 sequel in which Woody, Buzz, and the gang help Barbie and Ken realize a tropical getaway. As amusing as it might be, it is clearly the company’s most contrived and least ambitious work.

So the summer of low expectations continues. If you want a colorful, eye-filling time, Cars 2 could be your ride. Enjoy the exotic locales and keep a look out for the many on-screen Easter eggs. But if you’re jonesing for something with the substance of the rest of Pixars’ filmography, you’re in for a bumpy screening.

PS: 3D is dead. After the muddy, dark opening sequence I literally ran from the empty 3D screening to enjoy the rest of the film in the bright, better-attended 2D screening — seeing nothing in the rest of the film that required 3D. It was a three dollar lesson well-learned.

PPS: I’ve changed my mind. Pixar does NOT deserve ANY slack for suddenly jettisoning their storytelling traditions — especially not because “Cars 2 is aimed at kids.” The reason Pixar is a giant amongst studios is that they’ve never done that…they’ve never spoken down, or pandered, to any audience.

But now, Mater seems to be a wink and a nod to the NASCAR crowd, but in an cloying, cynical, way. Yes, people (or cars) shouldn’t put on airs, but everyone should expect their friends, and themselves, not to behave in a rude, obtuse, insulting, or stupid manner. And if they do, the story structure should be that they learn and change for the better, not embrace their boorishness!

Didn’t anybody on Cars 2 realize that Larry the Cable Guy is a CHARACTER Nebraska-born Daniel Whitney plays (with an unnatural, exaggerated, accent he borrowed from his college roommates)?!

If, indeed, Cars 2’s moral is to truly “be yourself,” how great it would have been to reveal that Mater keeps up the good ol’ boy redneck act just to protect himself from hurt and/or responsibility for his actions?!