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Over the past sixteen years, no production company can match the combination of quality and volume that the Emeryville (CA)-based firm has achieved. The numbers speak for themselves: 12 films, over $7 billion dollars in box-office receipts, and multiple times that figure in merchandise sales. Not content to simply produce populist pleasures, Pixar has produced pictures that have earned effusive praise from critics.
Which is why it’s a strange experience for me not to like a Pixar movie. “Cars 2” isn’t a bad movie, not at all, but it’s something less than good. The world of the “Cars” series is one in which sentient automobiles live in a society that, despite having to be optimized for a ruling race without hands, functions largely like our own. The first film was a reasonably effective parable echoing the economic and social state of the Midwest, with special regard given to commenting on the complicated culture of auto racing. It touched on the way the America’s changing infrastructure and decline in the production sector has affected a certain way of life. “Cars 2” outgrows the fairly low-stakes, personal scale of the first entry in the series, quickly embroiling star racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his trusty companion Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) in geopolitical conflicts and corporate conspiracies.
The voice cast is much more expansive this time around, replete with both actors and NASCAR drivers. The series has always reached a certain demographic, one that enjoys auto-racing and the aforementioned Larry the Cable Guy, so while stock car legend Kyle Petty had a fairly important role in “Cars”, this time around we get NASCAR notables Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip, along with Formula One personalities David Hobbs and Lewis Hamilton. The racers’ performances aren’t entirely convincing, and while it seems pedantic to ding their work as less-than-naturalistic in a movie about anthropomorphized cars, the dialogue often sounds like they were reading for a cheaply-shot commercial instead. It seems that Pixar realized this, however, and stocked up on accomplished character actors. Eddie Izzard, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, John Turturro, and Bruce Campbell all help raise the level of work being done, and co-directors John Lasseter and Brad Bird do a great job of using their voices and our pre-existing impressions of them to establish effective cinematic shorthand.
The look of the film is hard for me to really evaluate, because it mostly doesn’t work with my sensibilities. To be honest, it kind of freaks me out. I have a hard time with personified inanimate objects. “The Brave Little Toaster” was nightmare fuel in my younger days, and “Cars 2” is surprisingly similar. The cars bend and twist in ways that would be fine for cartoon people, but weird me out when attempted with machines. Plus, it’s creepy to think about driving around in a sentient being.
Any time a critic attempts to evaluate a film that appeals to a younger audience, they’re faced with a dilemma: how do we approach a work that is aimed at viewers with decidedly less mature sensibilities? The answer, at least for me, is in ways both more and less forgiving. The common refrain that you hear (always from adults) about the better kid-oriented animated films is “The kids liked it, but there’s stuff there for older people too”. In lesser examples (late era “Shrek” films, a good deal of Robin William’s patter in “Aladdin”) this often equates to innuendo, pop-cultural references, or jokes explicitly thrown in for the parents stuck in the theater or in front of the DVD player with their kids. When done correctly, however, it doesn’t have to be done at all. Well-crafted films with effective narratives transcend demographic boundaries, but few films can actually achieve that feat.
If that seems a little high-minded and lofty to you, perhaps a case of some critic reading too much into a kids movie, keep in mind that content producers will hide behind the label of “children’s entertainment” to pass off inferior, slapdash work. Children are very capable of enjoying good stuff, but they’re also a captive audience. They don’t really have a lot of input in the decision-making process. In my mind, kid-centric entertainment has to be evaluated in the same way we evaluate romantic comedies or sci-fi B-movies or whatever it is that Tyler Perry does: just because it puts itself in a certain category doesn’t mean that we have to judge it on that category.
Art is art, and it just so happens that “Cars 2” is lesser art. It didn’t have to settle for mediocrity, but it did, and we’re all the worse for it.