Cars Trouble: Pixar's latest may be studio's first flop
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
A case of the dreaded sequel-itis threatens to end the "perfect" studio's hot streak...
When Cars 2 is released tomorrow, June 24, it will not only be Pixar Studios' 12th major animated feature, but the latest product from a company that has enjoyed arguably the greatest run of success, both in critical acclaim and film receipts, in movie history. Directed by animation veteran John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Cars) and co-directed by Brad Lewis (producer of Ratatouille), the race-car-based sequel certainly has the pedigree of a winner. But early reviews, as well as even earlier (and perhaps prophetic) developments, are pointing towards Cars 2 not only attracting lukewarm reception, but possibly becoming a failure of massive proportions.
Uneasy mutterings regarding the picture began swirling as early as 2009. In an interview with Total Film, John Lasseter was prodded for hints about the then-faraway Cars 2 plot and confirmed that it would be at least partly set in Europe and Asia. While traveling the world promoting the first Cars film, Lasseter said he often found himself thinking of comedic situations that hillbilly tow truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) might find himself if in a strange new environ. "I could imagine him driving around on the wrong side of the road in the U.K...on the autobahn in Germany...trying to figure out road signs in Japan." As shockingly-banal and painful as that overdone 'fish out of water' scenario sounds, especially for a Pixar feature, the story has been further fleshed out into Mater being somehow mistaken for an elite spy along the way. Oh, the BMW-manity...
Also worth stating, and pondering, is that Pixar has yet to disclose its budget for Cars 2, an odd move that is rarely taken in Hollywood today and which may be a self-protective one in response to Pixar/Disney currently fighting a copyright lawsuit from a UK screenwriter who has alleged theft of intellectual property vis-a-vis the Cars franchise and storylines. Another interesting tidbit is the film's forward push of an entire year from its original release date of the summer of 2012. Is this a case of moving up a product in order to move forward on a bigger and better one (perhaps next year's Brave), in effect getting the first project "out of the way"?
In any event, the initial outlook is bleak for the second round of adventures of Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen, at least as far as critical consensus is concerned. According to Rotten Tomatoes' famous 'Tomatometer', the collating of America's top critics via a simple good or bad ('Fresh' or 'Rotten') review percentage, the lowest-ranked Pixar film before Cars 2 was the original Cars, at 74% positive reviews. No other Pixar film in history has ended its run below 90%. Cars 2 currently holds a 48% positive review score. It is not merely the worst-reviewed Pixar product ever, it has broken down in the pits and is getting hauled to the junkyard for scrap metal. It will need a flurry of late positive reviews just to stave off a 'Rotten' rating on Rotten Tomatoes (lower than 60%), a dishonor that no other Pixar film has ever held. It seems near impossible that it will surpass its predecessor's score of 74%. And a score in the 90s is outside the realm of possibility altogether.
...After the huge successes of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, et al... why bothering making a sequel to your (until now) lowest-rated effort yet?
But did it have to be this way? Only one other Pixar movie has become a multi-film franchise to date - the enormously-popular Toy Story, the film that made Pixar a household name. So after the huge successes of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, et al, in the ensuing years, why bother making a sequel to your (until now) lowest-rated effort yet? Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the specter of marketing raises its gargantuan head. What easier toy is there to market but a toy car? The idea of Tow Mater "hilariously" driving the wrong way down the M1 or not understanding Japanese road signs in Japan not only ushers in very un-hilarious comparisons to the 'ugly American tourist' cliche, but also sounds like something that Pixar fans are quite unaccustomed to - lazy screenwriting.
Not only that, but lazy screenwriting deferring to easily-marketable merchandise. From the same studio, and director, that brought you the complex relationships and friendships between old children's toys in the Toy Story films and the moral lessons of helping your friends and standing up for what's right in A Bug's Life comes a dirty redneck tow truck being mistaken for a super spy and Lightning McQueen racing in yet another race-oh-who-cares-look-how-shiny-the-cars-are-I-want-one!!!... That's right - the George Lucas Effect, alive and well within the hallowed halls of Pixar Studios. Could it be???
Say it ain't so, John.
That's not to mention the unfortunate (and blasphemous) decision to allow the long-intellectually-bankrupt Weezer to cover The Cars' "You Might Think" for the film's featured musical track (Haha, get it? 'The Cars'!!!) But even with all the signs pointing towards the generally dependable route of budget-recouping merchandising saving Cars 2, even that might not go according to plan. I went to a screening of Kung Fu Panda 2 soon after its release a few weeks ago. The theater was nearly full and, as you'd expect for a popular animated feature, amply populated with kids. One of the previews shown before the film was Cars 2. There was Lightning McQueen darting in and out of traffic during a big race! There was Mater...well...talking silly and taking slapsticky pratfalls and what-not! Action! Adventure! Jokes! Multi-colored lights and whiz-bangs! The preview ended. Out of that near-capacity theater, out of all those popcorn-plied, soda-sipping children, there was silence. Nothing. Not one laugh, not one excited whisper, not even one single pair of hands excitedly clapping. Nothing. Crickets. Then the next preview started and that silly little movie with the cars was forgotten, as if it had never even happened.
John Lasseter and the folks at Pixar had better hope that they sell off a few million of those McQueen and Mater cars at toy shops. Because their key demographic is speaking loud and clear about the film itself. And it sounds an awful lot like a very long, and very bored, yawn.
UPDATE: As of 4 pm MST on June 24, Cars 2's opening day, its Tomatometer rating has slipped even further. The animated feature's positive rating percentage has dropped from its previously-mediocre score of 48% to a rather-abysmal score of 33%, now garnering less than half of the critical acclaim of its predecessor.
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