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Pixar Rewind: ‘Cars 2’

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Welcome to the Pixar Rewind! Over the next couple weeks, we at Rotoscopers will analyze every Pixar film ever, and what makes each one so great. At the end of the series, and after the release of ‘Inside Out,’ we will have a fan vote to determine which film is the best of them all!

Let’s jump back to 2011. Pixar just came off a hot streak, from Toy Story in 1995 all the way to Toy Story 3 in 2010. These two films, along with all the others in between, opened to almost universal acclaim and healthy profits at the box office. Pixar’s name became a seal of quality to just about every moviegoer. Pixar was at the top of Hollywood and they could make just about anything they wanted. What the studio wanted to make was Cars 2.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t what the world wanted to see. Cars 2 did make a large profit, but it didn’t garner the critical acclaim, nor the praise from audiences, that its predecessors enjoyed. Opinions differed in the details, as opinions always do, but the general consensus was that Pixar lost its touch and that it had become just another slick Hollywood machine since its acquirement by Disney.

So, now, we come to the million dollar question: Was the criticism justified? Is Cars 2 as bad as most people claim?

Well… let’s talk about it, shall we?

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For those who may not have seen Cars 2 in a while, here are the basics of the plot. After he returns to Radiator Springs following a busy racing season, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) wants nothing more than to relax. However, Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) makes an angry phone call to a sports show after he hears Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), a hot-shot Formula One racer, criticize Lightning. Things escalate quickly, and Lightning ends up agreeing to compete in the World Grand Prix, a series of races sponsored by Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), who uses the event to promote his new organic fuel, Allinol. Lightning also agrees to take Mater along with him. During a press event, Mater is mistaken for an spy by two secret agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Before long, Mater is swept up, along with McMissile and Shiftwell, in an effort to foil a plot, concocted by a bunch of “lemon” cars, to destroy the racing cars.

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat. I like this film. I really do. There are a lot of good things that one can say about Cars 2, and I plan to say them. However, there’s a major flaw built into the film that keeps me from truly loving the movie. We’ll talk about that, too.

First, though, let’s make like John Lasseter and start by talking about the good stuff. The visuals are beautiful, for starters. Every setting is detailed and has its own distinct mood, from the small town nostalgia of Radiator Springs, to the techno-modern tone of the club in Japan, to the casino at Monte Carlo, to the sun-bathed streets of Italy, to everyplace in between. Much of each location’s style and mood is due to the impressive lighting and set design, both of which are impeccably detailed and atmospheric. All this adds a texture to the film that helps elevate the movie.

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The plot is also well constructed and fast moving. I have to admit that the earlier plot description was really hard to write, and that’s a good thing. The plot twists with every scene; new details are constantly revealed and each scene in the film does a good job pushing the plot forward. As a result, I found myself engaged for most of the film. The movie also carries a certain air of familiarity; Cars 2 takes the basic elements you’d find in any James Bond film (or any spy story, really) and puts a unique twist on them, making them fit into the world that the Cars franchise has built.

Yes, the film is a perfect Bond pastiche, and that’s part of the problem. You see, Bond movies have always had a problem getting emotion into their stories (with the two brilliant exceptions of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Skyfall). The Bond films are always fun, but – except for those two films I mentioned – they’re pretty shallow. There’s a lot of gun play and explosions, but the characters are caricatures. Therefore, it’s hard to work up too much interest in their fates.

Unfortunately, Cars 2 falls to this same problem. The spy story is fun, but it’s backed up by a bunch of two-dimensional characters, both on the side of the good and evil. Finn and Holley are fun, but they don’t have much personality outside their jobs as secret agents. On top of this, I’ve never really liked Mater; he’s good-natured enough, but he also grates on my nerves. All three of the characters are somewhat unrealistic, so it’s hard for me to invest my emotions in them. The same goes for the bad guys of Cars 2; aside from the leader of the villains, the thugs of the movie have extremely shallow motivations that drive their actions, so it’s hard to take them seriously.

Ultimately, the big flaw of Cars 2 is that it has no soul behind it. It’s fun to follow the plot, and the visuals are lovely, but there’s no emotion driving the story, no real motivation behind any of the characters, and no heart. There’s lots of dazzle and excitement, but not much else. That’s fine, of course; there’s nothing wrong with a dose of dazzle now and then. If you’re looking for profound messages about the human condition, though, you might want to look elsewhere.

So, with that, we come back to the question we started with: Is Cars 2 a bad movie? No, not by any means. It’s good, pure entertainment, and, sometimes, that’s just what a person needs. It may not be the best film in Pixar’s list of credits, but it’s certainly not a bad film. Pixar hasn’t made one of those and, hopefully, they never will.

So, in conclusion, I’ll say this: If you have avoided Cars 2 for a while because you think that you don’t like the movie, you might want to give it another try. You might be surprised at how much you like it!

What do you think of Pixar’s Cars 2?  Do you like this film?

More from the Pixar Rewind:

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About AJ Howell

AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.
  • I for one loved the film, while I agree it’s not Pixar’s best, I think it’s not their worst either, I remember doing a review on my blog when I started it, and after reading this I feel like going back to see if my opinion remains the same

  • Andrew

    I remember the shock back in 2011 of seeing a Pixar film in the 30s on Rotten Tomatoes – when I saw the film on DVD, though, my thoughts were “Eh, it’s the weakest Pixar film, but it’s alright, 3/5 stars”.

    I think it’s okay as mindless entertainment, but as far as storytelling goes it’s definitely weak – the characters aren’t interesting or even believable, the story’s not that interesting, and it hones in way too much on Mater’s usual schtick instead of making the story and characters something worthwhile. So, overall, technically a bad movie and Pixar’s worst, but not the worst I’ve ever seen.

    • Baymax

      I see. It’s not poison, but it has no impact.

    • Míriam

      I agree with you and A.J. Howell on this point, I think that compared to other non-Pixar movies this film is quite good. I think it’s the fact that we would expect more from Pixar that left everyone with a bad taste after watching Cars 2

  • Roy K.

    Good article, I’m sure it must have been hard to right about a movie that so many people bash.

    btw It was Japan not China

  • Míriam

    I think the overall idea for this movie was brilliant, the action scenes were really fun to watch and the world-race and spy themes worked really well. For me, what ruined it was making Mater the main character and pushing McQueen to the background. You’re doing an action-packed spy movie and instead of the beloved fast racing car you put an old clueless (though adorkable) rusted slow car as the lead role instead. Ok… I get the whole “you make your own limits” and “don’t judge a book by its cover” lesson behind it all, but as a movie it just didn’t work.

    I also think that there were pieces of the plot that needed to be reworked (and I can’t believe they were approved), like the scene where the Italian racing car (I forgot his name, Francesco, something like that) teases McQueen into joining the race. It was the stupidest way ever to get him into racing! (and a boring scene, I must say) Couldn’t they have come up with a less selfish and childish reason, something that would make it epic?

    • Blake Taylor

      I agree. It’s a completely different genre from the first film, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but in terms of audience likability, going so off-tangent is a big hurdle to get through initially. It’s because of Cars 2 that I get nervous when Pixar filmmakers are quoted as saying Toy Story 4 will be a romantic comedy, different from the original trilogy. (I’m still excited for TS4, but like most everyone it seems, my excitement is hesitant.) You see so little of the original Radiator Springs crew in Cars 2 that the small glimpses we get prompt overloaded excitement… when really we should probably have a story with them at the center. Hopefully Cars 3 will have some depth and take us back to the roots of this series with a story focused on the significance of Radiator Springs as a town.

      • Manuel Orozco

        Lightning will be the star but Cars 3 is going across America and not just Radiator Springs.

    • Manuel Orozco

      I do like Mater but it’s for the better Lightning now has the spotlight back for Cars 3 this summer.

  • T Flip

    My young son loved Cars, and I was shocked to see that Cars 2 contained so much violence, including a torture scene. Of course it was not graphic violence, but it was not the sort of thing I wanted my four year old to be watching. My wife and I were very disappointed by this.

  • Renard N. Bansale

    “Ultimately, the big flaw of Cars 2 is this: it has no soul behind it. It’s fun to follow the plot, and the visuals are lovely, but there’s no emotion driving the story, no real motivation behind any of the characters, no heart.”

    Then again, most action films do this. They just don’t have the benefit of gorgeous animation.
    Cars 2 is very much like an early Bond film and would’ve felt home in the ’60s and ’70s, though not in a manner that dates it. I’ve learned to accept its charm and its beauty without going too hard on its story. It’s difficult to make a mature subject such as espionage into family fare and Cars 2 succeeded quite well.

    Even after this film, I don’t turn my back on Pixar. I don’t expect emotion-fueled cinema from them first. I expect films into which was poured effort into animation and making an entertaining story. Cars 2 delivered on that, albeit not perfectly, but it made its point. I’ll only start turning my back the moment they deliberately compromise on their projects and not just because personnel changes (a la Brave), but from the very beginning of production.

    Until then, I’ll see you all while waiting in line for the next Pixar film. ^_^

  • Mack

    Cars 2 is okay. The movie was just unlucky being the immediate follow-up to Pixar’s consecutive Best Picture nominees (Up, Toy Story), in a time when the other studios were impressing with How To Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me and Tangled.

    • Manuel Orozco

      One thing for sure, 5 years ago was the start of what’s now a new golden age of CGI animation.

  • Max den Hartog

    Pixar’s weakest film, but not as bad as some people make it to be. It’s decent and I enjoy watching it every once in a while, just not on the level of Toy Story 3, Ratatouille or UP.

  • brandon

    Sometimes, a piece of garbage is a piece of garbage, no matter which way you slice it or what angle you look from.

    That’s all I have to say.

    • True Fan

      Cars 2 is not garbage, it’s awesome, and that’s what most people who saw it believe. Your articles are all pieces of garbage, though, no matter which way you slice it or what angle you look from.

      That’s all I have to say. Have a nice day, Sir Axlerod. 🙂

      • brandon

        Thank you for that wonderful, insightful, and utterly pointless comment. I’ll be sure to look upon it fondly as I have you blacklisted.

        Have a nice day, Sir Axelrod. 🙂

  • GrizzlyAdams

    It’s a bad idea and not a good movie. Black eye for Pixar, but something had to do it, no one’s perfect. It could’ve been better than the first (because Cars is a good, not great film), if they took a good idea and worked at it, but they didn’t

  • I’m gonna be honest, I don’t hate this one so much.
    Granted yes its pointless in existing and takes every cliche in the book but I think the worst Pixar movie is Monster’s University since that one was tired and made me scared to go to College but Cars 2 is so harmless to me
    Overall, really pointless and stupid, but hey it could be worse!

  • Joe Siegler

    I’m not going to claim this is their best movie by far. But I never understood the hate.

    It’s not *THAT* bad. It’s just kind of decent, not an A level title, but more like a B- for me.

  • If nothing else, this movie is beautiful and I at least enjoyed looking at it.

  • Teejay Thomson

    You should hate this film, it’s a terrible film, no one can deny.

    • Brian Martin

      It’s a free country. I can like it if I want to!

  • Anthony Norris

    If only netflix would offer it out now haha

    • Baymax

      Haha! The idiots who put Barney, teletubbies, and Barry and the disco worms. Brain poisoning. What next? Food Fight? Legend of the titanic? Where the dead go to die? Netflix is awesome, but some of their employees have mental problems.

  • Katie

    I actually like this film better tha. The first one. Mostly cause I can’t stand shallow Lightening. And car spies are cool

  • Manuel Orozco

    Cars 2 to me is superior than the original in terms of story. However, it does not have the rewatch quality of our first adventure with the gang from Radiator Springs. In spite of all that, this installment features fun & sometimes intense action, striking animation and the elements you would expect from a buddy flick. Mater may not have the sidekick thunder of Dory or Buzz Lightyear but it was awesome to have him in the spotlight just for this one occasion. Mater’s spy storyline tops his typical Tall Tails antics.