Cars 2 (2011)

(In theaters, June 2011) For years, Cars held the distinction of being Pixar’s worst-reviewed film, even as it led to massive merchandising sales for Disney.  Now it’s about to lose this dubious honour to its own sequel: Cars 2 is, by a significant margin, the least impressive Pixar film, probably their first artistic flop to date.  I wasn’t a big fan of the original, with its ludicrous word-building, nostalgic sentimentalism and annoying characters.  But Cars now looks like a controlled achievement compared to its sequel, which ditches small-town blues for international espionage comedy and puts the most exasperating character of the franchise front and center.  Yes, this time around it’s Larry the Towtruck Guy who gets to star in another just-as-dumb riff on the mistaken-spy tropes, albeit with extra-special what-the-what? sauce given how the film delves into alternate energy source.  The villain’s plan barely makes sense in a “wouldn’t there be easier ways to do this?”, the world-building is just as superficial (Dinosaurs?  Staircases?  Wait: Dinosaurs?) but most damagingly of all, there’s a strong feeling that this is really a movie for kids that has very little to say to the adults.  Now, keep in mind that most of this bile is unjustified when read cold –most of it comes from the step down in quality after the extraordinary streak that Pixar managed for so long: After Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up! And Toy Story 3, something like Cars 2 –which clearly manages to satisfy expectations for a kid’s film—feels like a substantial disappointment.  There’s nothing really unlikable about the film, nor (aside from some cartoon violence) is it reprehensible or badly made.  The visual quality of the film is spectacular, and the numerous side-gags will earn the film at least a second viewing.  In a good mood, I may even praise the risks taken by the filmmakers in widening the scope of the series so dramatically (now with planes!  And ships!) and how, if the script is using well-worn tropes, it’s not exactly doing so dumbly.  Heck, I may even point out that I was enjoying myself during the film.  Still, there’s a difference between Cars 2 and the extraordinary output that Pixar sustained over the past half-decade, and it’s that difference that makes the difference.  Any other animation studio would kill for a film this good.  From Pixar, though, we’re left wondering “Really?”

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