Friday, June 24, 2011

Did Pixar make a bad movie?

I'll be honest. I was not looking forward to seeing "Cars II" as much as I had the last few Pixar movies. And it broke my heart.
As I grow into an increasingly cynical guy about to turn 40, Pixar was one of the few things that kept me believing. If you are cynical, or even struggling against it, like me, it's hard to like the movie business. There's Michael Bay, reboots, remakes, unoriginal ideas, Twilight movies, sequels and increasingly bad horror movies that believe buckets of blood can make up for a bag of twists.
But then there was Pixar, and in the summer, no less, when most of the sludge was served to us in a trough full of special effects and inane dialogue, we got brilliance. We got terrific storytelling, great characters and heartfelt, honest moments. I cried away my cynicism at the end of "Wall-E," "Up" and "Toy Story 3." In fact, I thought those three movies were some of the best movies I'd seen, and "Toy Story 3" was my favorite movie last year.
And what was even better was EVERYONE went to see them. Pixar is one of the few great success stories, a wonderful product that is actually endorsed by the public. That combination is rarer than you think. For every Adele, there's two Katy Perrys.
It got to the point where I believed Pixar was incapable of making a bad movie. It made me believe. Going to the new Pixar movie is a summer tradition, like running a 4th of July race. 
Alas. Brilliant white light eventually dims. Maybe that's the lesson of "Cars II."
I just got back from the theater, and I'm trying, really hard, not to bash the crap out of it. I mean, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, who is not only my favorite movie writer but a guy I agree with more than anyone else, gave it three-and-a-half stars, and one thing I love about him is he always forms his own opinion, rather than jump on the back of other reviewers and reheat what everyone's saying. So he saw that same brilliance that we all saw in "Wall-E."
What Travers does is impressive because it's HARD not to let the buzz influence our opinions of something. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising in the entertainment business. That's how movies like "Little Miss Sunshine" become smash hits. And I had not heard many good things about "Cars II."
I honestly wondered if reviewers were either falling for the new story, i.e. Pixar Made A Sucky Movie! or ready to knock Pixar off its perch. We love it when greatness falters because, well, it brings it back to our levels. When something is THAT great, all the time, well, you begin to wonder why YOU can't be great all the time, and let's face it, that's an uncomfortable feeling, and we Americans, more than anything else, like that comfortable feeling of feeling good about ourselves.
So I went in with an open mind. I'm still trying to keep it. I owe Pixar that much, at least.
(Actually, I have repaid Pixar for its greatness and inspiration in thousands spent on the company's annoying merchandise. It's inevitable when you have three small children and the characters are so very, cheek-pinching cute. Ironically, "Cars" was by far the most criminal at this. McQueen is printed on T-shirts, bedsheets, underwear, frosted cookies, a dumpyard of toys, swimsuits, floaties, kickboards, countless food items, watches, CDs, DVDs and I don't have all day to list the rest. And that's just in our house. I would not be stunned to find Cars on tampons).
So here's my quickie: The movie isn't really all that bad. It doesn't hold up to the past movies. It's probably the worst Pixar movie ever, save for "A Bugs Life," which I had wiped from my memory with one of them Total Recall machines. In fact it almost doesn't deserve to carry the label.
But it's not "Hop," not by a longshot. It's even better than some reasonably cute kids movies I've seen in the last six months, like "Rio" or "Megamind." Part of the problem of being Pixar is the movies are almost TOO good. People think "Led Zeppelin III" is a bad album for the same reason.
In fact, I walked out of the movie, and Jayden, my 6 year old son, was grinning ear to ear. Did you like it, we asked him, and he nodded.
OK then.
No, what worries me more is "Cars II" honestly seemed far more like a normal movie than I've ever seen from Pixar. In other words, it was a sequel, and it didn't seem all that imaginative or well-thought-out or even planned in any way. It seemed like a summer movie that featured friendly, well-known characters, lots of cool special effects (the movie does LOOK incredible), an easy, wild, plot and lots of explosions (!!!).
Sequels aren't always bad. Remember what I said about "Toy Story 3"? (And "Toy Story 2" was just as good). And neither are fun summer movies. Hey, I loved "Speed." I loved "The Dark Knight." I loved "Inception."
Instead, "Cars II" honestly was the kind of movie that made me so cynical about movies. And it didn't seem like a simple misstep. John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and one of my top three people I'd kill cute, fluffy bunnies to invite for dinner, co-directed it. Yikes. And what's even worse, before "Cars II," Pixar showed a "Toy Story" short. I love the shorts as much as the movies. They are when Pixar seems to stretch its considerable creative limits even further. They are imaginative and brilliant and everything the movie business is mostly not. But this movie was something Pixar can find in its office trashcans. I'd be surprised if it took more thought than a working lunch over Burger King.
The fact that Pixar made both scares me to death. I need magic in my life. I suppose I can't have it all the time. But I live in a world where it's drying up. If I can't count on Pixar once a year, well, maybe I'll just have to join the crowd who believes Katy Perry is actually good.

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BLAARGH! said...

awesome review peaker! I just chalk the whole thing up to the fact that the whole cars thing ain't for me. Not a car guy, never was. Lassiter is aiming this squarely at those that are. I guess it remains to be seen whether he's caving in to disney exec pressure, or if cars are just something he's into that I'm really not - and a lot of other people are. I think Brave will be a return to form, and I have no prob with monsters 2 (I think M1 should have won over shrek that year). And bugs life really isn't all that bad... I'd watch that over just about any other studio's animation any day....
Having said all that... I wish disney would die a miserable fucking death. Pixar got eaten by the devil, which is fantastic for the investors, but I think incredibly bad for the spirit of Pixar....

jjok said...

like I said on your blog. Liked the movie, didn't love it, but the kids adored it.....especially JJ.

My question is the content. Death and torture scene in the first 15 minutes is not something folks take lightly.

Mike Maloney said...

I think you're worrying too much about it. The original Cars was directed at kids, and kids loved it. Grown-ups generally consider it to be the worst of the Pixar movies. So they make a sequel to it, and shockingly enough, kids love it, grown-ups don't. They were rehashing a franchise that didn't go over great with the adults the first time around, why would this be any different?

Their next movie is going to be a fairytale-esque movie called Brave, and even the 30-second teaser trailer should have you excited for it.