Why "Cars 2" Didn't Quite Connect
Last week, I attended a screening of Pixar’s new film Cars 2. Normally, I would have written up a review of the movie right away and posted it here, but upon leaving the theatre, it took me a while to fully wrap my head around what I had seen. I figured I’d wait and write up more of a general reaction to Cars 2 rather than a straight-up review.
There’s something about Cars 2 that I can’t quite diagnose – it’s actually present in the first Cars, too – and when you compare the two films with the rest of Pixar’s record, the Cars franchise seems oddly separate. I think there’s a reason why the Cars films have become the only Pixar films to have trouble connecting with audiences, and I’m going to explain it here. Read on for more about the black sheep of the Pixar library, and to leave your thoughts in the comments!
The first Cars movie came out in 2006, and told the story of a hotshot racecar named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who finds himself stuck in the backwater town of Radiator Springs, on the historic Route 66 highway. McQueen ends up getting a lesson in humility from the down-to-earth car denizens of the town, and goes on to become a champion racer. Cars 2 was released on June 24th, and picks up McQueen’s story several years later, after a number of “Piston Cup” titles and an invitation to compete in the World Grand Prix. McQueen’s competition brings his friend Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) along for the ride, and accidentally implicates Mater in the world of international car espionage (unbeknownst to McQueen).
The plots of these movies aren’t complicated, and are certainly on par with previous Pixar efforts, at least in terms of the colourful characters and imaginative story sequences. What’s more, the visuals in both films still match the top-notch animation we expect from Pixar. I remember seeing the trailer for Cars back in 2005 and being blown away by the level of detail in things like the road surfaces and forests. But the problem I’ve found with the Cars films lies in one of the most fundamental elements: the premise of living, talking cars.
I know, anthropomorphic cars are not out of the ordinary for Pixar. After all, their first big hit, Toy Story, is all about a group of toys who come alive when humans aren’t looking. Consider, however, the whole list of Pixar’s movies. Except for the Cars pictures, they all have one thing in common: they take place (even in some small way) in the world of humans. The stories usually occupy a part of the human world hidden from view, like the fish communities of the Great Barrier Reef in Finding Nemo, or how the city of Monstropolis lies just beyond children’s closet doors in Monsters, Inc. Conversely, in the Cars films, there are no humans present at all – and this has a big impact in how we view the film.
One of the benefits of structuring a movie around a "hidden world" is when the characters' actions spill over into the "real world" and are noticed by the humans. One scene like this occurs at the end of Toy Story 2, when the residents of Andy's neighbourhood discover an airport baggage train parked haphazardly in the street. The neighbours are seen scratching their heads, wondering how this could have happened. Andy's toys, of course, had used it the night before to drive home from the climactic encounter with the villainous toy Stinky Pete. Cars and Cars 2 are stripped of these sorts of scenes, because there are no human characters to be baffled by the mysterious events connected to their cars. If the point of the Cars films is to reveal the "secret lives of cars" (as one of the taglines for the first film announced), where is the secret, when there are no humans to hide from?
Because the cars are the dominant residents of Earth, the films also have to work harder to set each scene. All the technology is based around cars pressing buttons with their (strangely articulated) wheels. Buildings are only designed with ramps and “washrooms” that provide car washes and oil changes. Structures like London’s Big Ben (called Big Bentley in the film) or Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge look like they are made out of car parts. In and of themselves, these details might seem like clever additions to make the world of the film seem more plausible. Unfortunately, it actually distracts the viewers and makes it difficult to tell a story.
Pixar attempts to completely reinvent the world in the Cars films, in an effort to explain how the cars live in their automobile-only society. As a result, I found myself spending more time trying to understand how that world works than paying attention to the story. I began to wonder, "How would x work with cars? How did their race evolve? Do they reproduce?" The filmmakers at Pixar do an excellent job answering some of these questions (they stay away from the procreation ones), but there is so much information to process that it takes away from the experience. In other Pixar films, it’s far easier to jump into the narrative, because you more readily accept that there might be another dimension to our everyday lives: a gangster-style turf war as in A Bug’s Life, or a Parisian gourmand rat as in Ratatouille. With these Pixar flicks, the premise isn’t as overwhelming as a planet without humans.
There is a another side-effect of casting cars as the main characters of a movie. The history of cinema has established that cars automatically inject action into a movie in a very fundamental way; whether they are simply moving the story forward, becoming the basis of a high-speed chase sequence, or even transforming into the setting of a dramatic conversation or argument. In Cars and Cars 2, we instinctively associate the characters with action based on how we have seen cars used in other movies, and this overwhelms the story Pixar is trying to tell. When Lightning McQueen chases after Mater near the end of Cars 2 to apologize for criticizing his social skills, the scene struggles to look like an exchange between two friends, and feels more like what it is: two cars racing down a track.
Even if those cars have faces, voices and personalities, it’s more of a challenge for the viewer to relate to them. Cars have been historically portrayed as machines that get us from one place to another, and it’s difficult for these movies to overcome that. That’s not to say that Pixar doesn’t try to make it work: the movies are (like all Pixar films) crammed with heart, and the characters would be endearing in any shape or species. Cars 2 ends up being an entertaining, well-crafted movie that can’t quite sell the idea of living cars in the way Pixar sold us on its other concepts. Here’s hoping that Pixar can move on from this tiny bump in the road and continue to deliver great stories, while picking their subjects a bit more wisely in the future.
What did you think about Cars 2? How easily did you accept the world of the movie? Are you worried about Pixar’s coming projects, or was the Cars franchise just a slight misstep? Post your comments below, and check out some of my related articles: