So Mrs pdb and I shelled out a staggering amount of cash and took Jack to see his first movie on the big screen. Between seeing Cars about 23000 times and owning about enough Pixar merchandise that we probably have an ice cream dispenser named in our honor at the Pixar campus cafeteria, we of course went to see Cars 2.
Short version: Jack loved it, and sat in rapt attention all the way through (which is more than I could say for a couple of tweens two rows ahead of us). I liked it, but in my personal pantheon of Pixar, I put it in the basement with Monsters Inc., and Ratatouille. It’s not a bad movie, a better car flick than all the Fast ‘n Furious movies put together and wrapped up with bacon, but it pales in comparison to Cars and the movie Cars 2 could have been.
I think the Cars movies have always been unfairly judged by critics, who are probably all effete urban metrosexuals who despise personal transportation and don’t understand the affection normal people have for their automobiles. Thus it has been extremely gratifying for me that Cars 2 has been handily raking in the cash despite the disapproval of the critics.
On first viewing, Cars was a cute but simple story of friendship between anthropomorphic cars. But on (many (many)) repeat viewings, subtle depth appears. I believe Cars was one of the most purely Zen films to be released in recent years. Note that the brash young race car, Lightning, never actually wins anything. Instead, he finds fulfillment in the accomplishment of a mundane task and the pursuit of self improvement. He learns that loyal friendship is the most valuable treasure of all, and honor is its own reward.
Indeed, nearly all the major characters of Cars experience an arc. The wizened sage learns to trust again and forgives the world that had forsaken him. The other residents of the town rediscover their honor by applying their unique talents for the sake of excellence.
(Incidentally, I am perplexed by people criticizing Cars as being a retelling of Doc Hollywood. Hellllooooo, it’s a KIDS MOVIE. KIDS are not likely to check out a 20 year old Micheal J Fox flick. Kids are not also likely to be Kurosawa fans and A Bug’s Life is a great way to sneak them some Seven Samurai without them knowing it. Sheesh.)
This is what Cars 2 is missing. None of the characters experience any growth or even any lasting consequences to the adventure they had. We just get to watch a bunch of friends have wacky hijinks all over the world and go home to applause. This is not a bad thing, but it is a little disappointing given what Pixar has delivered in the past.
Visually, Cars 2 is breathtaking. The detail and atmosphere of the settings and backgrounds are completely convincing and uncritically immersive. The race scenes (what little there are of them) are thrilling and emotive in ways that are impossible to convey with real cars but yet don’t push the limits of believability enough to break the mesmerizing hold the cars have on the audience. There are some good sight gags for the kids and enough gearhead in-jokes that it’ll take years to list them all on the wiki page. The plot moves along snappily and has good lessons about friendship, duty, heroism and identity. If nothing else, I hope kids take home the lesson that you are what you do, not what people think or say about you.
This is the end of the good news.
The action scenes are perfunctory and lack any real sense of peril, despite the deaths (?) of two cars depicted during the movie. There is of course the annoying eco-fascist assumption that oil is bad and should be replaced by something “sustainable”. This is offset somewhat by the promoter of the new environmentally friendly fuel being a slimy huckster and villain. Like I said above, the characters all seem to arrive and depart the stage unchanged. Lightning McQueen is hardly in the movie, we spend a lot more time with Mater and his new spy friends, so if you’re irritated by Larry the Cable Guy, you’d best bring earplugs.
The movie comes across as a 2 hour commercial for themed merchandise instead of a fully realized artistic vision. Again, this is not a bad thing, #DEITY knows I don’t mind a bit of crass commercialism and Cars merchandise has made Jack more enthusiastic about everything from long car trips to sleeping in a big boy bed to eating and drinking.
But Cars 2 is a decent flick where it could have been a great one, and I think that’s where my irritation lies. I hope they do a better job with #3.
ps: Here is the single biggest problem I have with the Cars movies:
This car is carrying a mattress. Why is that? I said, why is that?