Cars 2 (US - BD)
Gabe has seen the first officially dreadful Pixar movie and fears for the future...
Four-time Piston Cup champion racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) returns ‘home’ (does he have a home? has he been touring for six years?) to Radiator Springs for hard earned relaxation, and reunites with best friend Mater (Daniel Whitney), and girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). Soon after his arrival, McQueen is challenged by an obnoxious formula one car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Tuturro) to join the ‘World Grand Prix’, a three-part, multi-style vehicle race sponsored by ‘Allinol biofuel’, a new green alternative to fossil fuels. McQueen accepts the challenge, and takes his Radiator Springs buddies along as his pit crew, including Mater. Meanwhile, British spy cars Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are hot on the trail of an evil group of lemons bent on destroying the Allinol using vehicles by weaponizing it (kind of). The elaborate lemon plot intersects with Mater in Japan, where he is mistaken for a US spy contact.
Like many of you, Cars was the first Pixar film I didn’t like. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the Doc Hollywood storyline, and, likely most importantly, I don’t really relate to car culture all that much, which led me to not like the concept. Cars 2 is the first Pixar film I didn’t see in theaters. This isn’t only because I was left cold by the original film, but due to my aversion to the idea of Pixar cranking out sequels. Yes Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 ended up being great films, but the exception shouldn’t be the rule, as the real value of the studio over the years has been in its original, imaginative concepts, not its technical achievements. If I’m going to care about the technical achievements, then I would’ve rushed out to see Cars 2 after reading that it broke records for digital rendering times. But I really don’t care about that (well, obviously I care enough to have memorized that bit of trivia…). Pixar already did the whole talking car thing, an already unoriginal concept (there was a lawsuit and everything), and in my opinion the concept flopped. Why would they want to waste time that could’ve been spent on another Ratatouille or Up on continuing to dabble in the mediocre world of Cars?
Is it about the money? I doubt it. I’m sure Disney, who has reportedly made more than $10 billion (that’s billion with a ‘b’) on Cars merchandise, approached the production from the ‘more money, less problems’ angle, but I tend to believe director/writer/producer/head of Pixar and Disney Animation/all around demigod John Lasseter when he says he made the film out of a love for cars and car culture. I think this is a deeper, practically Freudian issue on Lasseter’s part. In the same way George Lucas seems incapable of moving beyond Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and all related Saturday morning serial elements, Lasseter is apparently obsessed with anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. Look at his filmography, specifically the films he had a hand in writing: The Brave Little Toaster (anthropomorphized household objects), Luxo Jr. (anthropomorphized gooseneck lamps), Tin Toy (anthropomorphized toys), Red’s Dream (anthropomorphized unicycle), Knick Knack (anthropomorphized snow globes), all three Toy Story movies, and now the two Cars films, and their related shorts. Bug’s Life stands as his only major release (along with the original Pixar short The Adventures of André and Wally B., which he had a hand in writing) that doesn’t involve normally inanimate objects given life. Stop and think about how weird that is for a minute. It’s kind of perverse, isn’t it? And speaking of perversion, that beneath their innocuous, some would say boring, façades, the Cars films take place in a nightmare universe full of cars living human-like lives. Perhaps its because I find these films so boring that I notice how aberrant and weird this concept is. My friend Zach Walker once told me that Cars is a better movie if you pretend it’s a sequel to Maximum Overdrive.
As expected, Cars 2 offers nothing new to the franchise except for bigger action set-pieces, and more lame car puns. The writers attempt to build upon their ridiculous universe by explaining the way things work, and ‘modernize’ the plot by basing it vaguely around an environmentally friendly theme. The bulk of the comedy is based around how ‘amusing’ it is to see cars carrying out human tasks, which means the idea of seeing a truck accidentally bideting himself on a car toilet appeals to you, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. The rest of the comedy is based around the fact that Mater is an utter plebian that is confused by other cultures. This embarrasses McQueen, who is then permitted to act like the same ass he was in the first film. Besides the fact that this means the script does nothing to move their characters forward, which was the key element in making the Toy Story sequels work, it’s almost impossible to find one’s self wrapped up in any of this drama, because I can’t imagine anyone in the audience enjoying Mater’s hijinks. The only thing McQueen is doing ‘wrong’ is that he’s spending any time with this ass in the first place. The environmental themes and subtext are borderline offensively backwards for much of the film. The prevailing moral is something along the lines of ‘cheap cars and alternative fuels are evil’. In the end the film turns on a dime to a more pro-alternative fuel stance, but it felt like an easy-to-ignore afterthought to me (feel free to tell me I’m being unfair). I’m sure the bulk of Daniel Whitney’s fan base will enjoy not having their belief system challenged, as the other, even more prevalent moral has something to do with ignorance being a virtue. Is it possible that the tree-huggers that made Wall-E would make this mistake? Apparently yes, especially when they don’t care about anything outside of the non-comedy that is putting anthropomorphic cars in human situations.
The only story element that works in the film’s favour is the secret agent angle. I don’t mean to imply that the spy movie spoof is a good or creative choice, or that it fits the other half of the script at all, but it pulls the plot away from the stale characters and terrible jokes, and aims it towards mindless action scenes, which are well executed. In technical terms Cars 2 sits among the studio’s greatest efforts, featuring incredibly detailed and realistic backgrounds and textures. The production fully embraces the epic scope of an international adventure, and the art design is at the very least very colourful, though again, there’s really nothing creative about the approach. The races would’ve been more exciting if there was anything at stake other than McQueen’s feelings, but the action animation is still very well executed, and the character animation effectively brings expressive life to reasonably realistic looking vehicles. Lasseter scores points for the new members of his cast, including Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, and Bruce Campbell, then loses them not casting creatively, as every actor acts like themselves. This is especially disappointing because Pixar, unlike DreamWorks Animation, usually goes with the best voice for the character, not the most famous.
Cars 2, like, you know, every Pixar release, is a direct digital transfer. There was no film involved in the process, blah, blah, blah. This 1080p transfer looks like about $120 million, and doesn’t disappoint the millions of viewers assuming it will look perfect. It’s easy to see where all the money went while watching the film, which features dramatic textures, needle-sharp details, and rich, vibrant colours. Things like earth, sea water, grass, and clouds are pretty much photorealistic, and the comedically proportioned car characters feature similarly realistic surface textures. These textures a juxtaposed so well (Mater’s rust and McQueen’s shine, for example), and the more simplified characters stick out against the more industrial and natural backgrounds so successfully I assume the transfer would’ve worked well even in black and white. Fortunately I don’t have to assume, because the film is enormously colourful, and these ludicrously eclectic hues are incredibly vibrant. Consistent colour themes are increasingly popular in modern movies, as are naturalistic palettes, so it’s nice to give the set a nice workout with something more chromatically complex. Radiator Springs is pastel themed, featuring subtle, chalk-like gradations and contrasts. Tokyo is lit in neon, and set against deep black elements, which leads to vividly sharp and complex high contrast backgrounds. The baddie warehouse hideout is heavily shadowed, and features a generally more subdued palette, which helps push the frequency of fine textures.
There are no unpleasant surprises in the perfection of this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack either. The main characters are all, as you may have guessed, vehicles of some kind, and so they all make mechanical, electric and gas-powered noises as they move, adding another level of aural stimulation to even stoic dialogue sequences. If characters move, there’s an engine sound, and if they touch, there’s a metal on metal sound. It’s easy to overlook this part of the equation, which makes its subtly all the more valuable and impressive. Cars 2 is more or less an action movie, so there’s plenty of aggressive bombast throughout the production as well. The race scenes, which are the film’s bread and butter, match expectations set by live action car flicks like the Fast and the Furious series, including a lot of directional movement, and a wide spread of intricate noise. The LFE channel also gets a healthy workout thanks to the omnipresence of rumbling car engines and rolling rubber tires. The important dialogue is rarely lost in the expertly tweaked chaos, and the vocal effects are generally more naturally mixed than expected. Composer Michael Giacchino was clearly hired because of his work on Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. This is especially apparent during the spy-themed and action based sequences. This music evokes John Barry’s James Bond scores, including brassy horns, groovy organs, and clean electric guitars.
The extras begin with a commentary with director John Lasseter and co-director (whatever that means) Brad Lewis. Lasseter’s interviews and commentaries always read as genuine, but he also has a tendency to come across as a bit of a sub-Walt Disney huckster. His tone is always sweet, and he has a fatherly quality to his speech, but there’s always something at the back of my mind warning me that he’s just a salesman, and I shouldn’t trust him. I can’t complain about the informative nature of this track, even if Lasseter just verifies my assumptions – he built the story around ideas he came up with while seeing other countries on the press tour for the first Cars, thinking it would be funny to stick Mater in international situations. The spy movie elements were apparently a movie-in-movie gag from the first film, and he thought it would be fun to mix that with his weak alternate concept. I also can’t complain about his preparation for the track. Any time he pauses, Lewis is right in there to fill the gap with another bit of surprisingly non-repetitive info. The track falls apart when Lasseter explains the all too obvious subtext, but usually he even brings these brief trysts with boredom around to making a point about screenwriting. It’s easy to understand why Lasseter has risen to such lofty heights at Disney and Pixar – his interests are infectious. Listening to the track made me wish I had enjoyed the film, and I’m sure adult fans will be happy to learn a little about the behind the scenes process.
Next up are two Pixar shorts, both of which are unfortunately based on existing properties. Hawaiian Vacation (5:50, HD) features the post third film Toy Story gang attempting to relax while new owner Bonnie and her mother take a vacation in Hawaii. Ken and Barbie try to sneak along, but only make it into Bonnie’s bedroom. The other toys take pity and make up the bedroom to look like a tropical wonderland. It’s cute, the producers somehow managed to score the entire cast to voice it, and the last gag before the credits made me laugh out loud. Air Mater (5:20, HD) is less cute. It sees Mater visiting a town of planes, and obnoxiously learning to fly. It’s pretty much an elongated ad for Disney’s straight to video Planes feature. The disc also features trailers for other Disney and Pixar releases.
Toy Story 3 proved my instinctual fear of unnecessary sequels wrong, but this meager effort has strengthened my fear of future sequel projects, namely Monster University. Cars 2 isn’t just Pixar’s weakest film, it’s the studio’s first flat out bad film. I’m glad critics were harsh on it, because maybe it means John Lasseter, a man no longer concerned with making a quick buck, will step back and realize he’s wasted the studio’s time on a vanity project. Instead of wasting your time watching Pixar slumming it, why not watch that other kid-friendly, and hyper-colourful racing movie – The Wachowski’s Speed Racer? Speed Racer features better characters, smarter subtext, and action scenes that feature thematic weight. It was also a flop, and could use some attention. The more attention we move away from Cars 2, the less likely they’ll make a Cars 3, and the less likely we’ll have to suffer another year without a creative and moving Pixar picture. But assuming you are able to get some kind of enjoyment out of this mess, feel secure in the fact that this disc features a brilliant 1080p transfer, and a bombastic DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 1st November 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, French and Spanish, DTS-HD Master Audio ES, Dolby Digital 2.0 DVS and Near Field 2.0, Dolby Digital EX French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Directors Commentery, Car Toons: Air Mater, Hawaiian Vacation, Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Cast: Owen Wilson, Daniel Whitney, John Tuturro, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Caine, Emilt Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, Bruce Campbell
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation and Comedy
Length: 106 minutes
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