Friday, September 16, 2011

Cars 2: This Time, It's Impersonal

There is a great moment in the short that Pixar assembled describing the process of making The Incredibles. In (creator) Brad Bird's original vision, Elastigirl had a sidekick who managed her hardware—the supersonic jet and what-not. In fact, in the scene after said jet is shot down, there's a moment where she looks down at the wreckage that seems a little out of place.

The great moment is Brad Bird explaining how important this character was to his concept of the story and how badly he wanted him in, then cutting to John Lasseter explaining that the movie was already too long, and there were too many characters, and so on. And the two of them go back and forth, with Lasseter saying he had to let Bird do what he felt was right, no matter how wrong.

Bird finally realized that Lasseter was right, and he removed the sidekick. That out-of-place wreckage scene is the only remaining vestige: It's there because Elastigirl is basically watching her friend sink into the deeps—but since he's been completely removed from the movie, it's just a momentary oddness.

I've always imagined Pixar to be that sort of place, where artists battled over ideas, and the ideal battled with the practical.

That's why it's tragic to see Cars 2, supposedly directed by Lasster, now head of all Disney animation, forget such basic rules and become the first not-very-good Pixar film.

There's so much right about this film. It's chock-full of Pixar's attention to detail. There are stunning visual moments. The movie is centered around Mater, the lovable tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, so that it avoids being a rehash of the original Cars.

But it's waaaay too complicated. Not just for kids, but for drama. A lot of people accused Cars of being an animated version of Doc Hollywood, to which I say "so what"? You got to know the characters—a whole town full of characters, so that it mattered whether or not Lightning stayed or went. It was squarely in the Pixar model of movies about service to community (cf. Disney films which are almost entirely about being yourself), so you had a struggle over what one wanted as an individual and what was right.

This movie almost sets it up that way. Mater is a rube, of course. And he embarrasses his friends. And he gets almost to the point of recognizing that he does and changing his ways, when everyone says he should be himself and the rest of the world needs to adapt to him. (Really? You shouldn't maybe hold that flatulence in until after you've met the Queen?)

That wouldn't necessarily be bad by itself, except that the whole thing is tied up in an Evil Big Oil plot. The Big Oil thing is neither here-nor-there, but the plot requires the introduction of a whole fleet of new characters. Notably, Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer play Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, straight out of a 007 film.

But then there's the chief villain, half-a-dozen or more mook cars, Guido and Luigi's family in Italy, a new, snotty competitor for McQueen (voiced by John Turturro, who actually does a quite memorable turn), and there's just not really any room for much in the way of real dramatic storytelling.

The second major issue has to do with action.

The whole concept of Cars is fraught with all kinds of weird imponderables. When Tex Avery did his car and plane-based cartoons in the '50s, the anthropomorphosization of which was just like Cars, the implication was that cars were sort of biological creatures, having children and parental issues and what-not. Cars just sort of ignores the issue, but it's actually pretty central to the plot and concept of the "lemon".

What does this have to do with the action? Well, in order for Finn to impress us all these incredible spy things, we have to have a concept of what it is a car can do in the first place—what its limitations are, in other words, so that we can marvel at the extraordinary actions. Almost immediately, for example, a car falls off a high point into the water, and the fall kills him. Then Finn jumps into the water later and is not only fine, but able to turn into a (very Bond-esque) submarine.

Well, okay. Why not? There's a difference between falling and diving, and he's a spy and all that. But it kind of lampshades the whole problem: If there's going to be suspense that the audience can relate to, doesn't there need to be a way to grasp the limitations of the characters. (This is a really common action movie issue these days, at least for me, but they keep doing it.)

This ties into the third major issue, which has to do with mass. In the early days of animation, animators simply exploited their animated-ness: They'd have the characters use their own thought bubbles for rope, or climb up walls, or whatever. I'm sure it was entertaining for a while, but ultimately they had to come up with a kind of physics or they'd never have passed the phase of "Gee! Look! Animation!"

CGI, similarly, doesn't weigh anything. It's particularly conspicuous in action movies where the character is throwing something supposedly heavy around and it doesn't look real. And in low-rent CGI, you get a lot of gags like you'd see in primitive animation. Pixar has always been exquisitely careful about the physics of their films.

By the end of Cars 2, crap is flying around so fast it's just hard to invest in any of it. It's almost like the standard, crap summer action flick has infected Pixar.

Now, it's really not that bad. It's a little boring because of the points I've mentioned. And hugely disappointing after what must be the longest unbroken streak of great films in any movie studio's history. But this makes a modest stumble seem like a huge fall. It's not, of itself.

The Boy and The Flower declined to partake, but the Barb liked it. She wanted to see the original one right after, of course, but she didn't complain.

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