So what happened to Cars 2?
On Saturday afternoon, at my insistence, my wife and I ended up in a theater full of excited kids and obliging parents at a screening of Cars 2, which had already received the worst reviews in the history of Pixar. Rather to my surprise, my wife enjoyed it more than I did, and the kids seemed okay with it as well (aside from the one who kicked my chair repeatedly throughout most of the last twenty minutes). Yet the film itself is undeniably underwhelming: a bright, shiny mediocrity. Cars 2 isn’t a bad movie, exactly—it’s watchable and reasonably fun—but it’s a disappointment, not only in comparison to Pixar’s past heights but also to a strong recent showing from DreamWorks, which includes How to Train Your Dragon and the sublime Kung Fu Panda series. And while Pixar can take comfort in good box office and decent audience reactions, I hope that the negative critical response inspires some introspection at the studio as to how things went wrong.
It’s important to note that it wouldn’t have taken a miracle to make Cars 2 a better movie. While the original Cars struck me as somewhat misconceived, the basic elements of the sequel are all sound: the shift in tone from nostalgic Americana to international thriller is a masterstroke, and the underlying story and premise are fine, although never particularly involving. The trouble is that the script, by writer Ben Queen, never really sparkles, at least not by the standards we’ve come to expect: there are some laughs, but only a few hit home, and the movie seems content to coast on the level of cleverness rather than taking the leap to really inspired comedy or action. Cars 2 is constantly on the verge of breaking through to something more engaging, but never quite makes it, when I suspect that another pass on the screenplay, and some honest notes, would have made all the difference.
This brings us to the second big problem: it’s hard to give notes to the man who founded the studio. John Lasseter is undeniably a genius—he’s the rare example of a great creative artist who has also demonstrated a willingness to tackle the practical problems of building a major corporation—but it was probably too much to ask one man to oversee Pixar, Disney animation, and a movie of his own. A recent New York Magazine profile makes it clear that the process left Lasseter pressed for time, which would have made it hard for him to address his own movie’s more glaring flaws. Even more importantly, it seems likely that his status as a Pixar legend and founding father prevented him from receiving the feedback he needed. Just a glance at the history of movies reminds us that the heads of studios can make remarkable producers—just look at David O. Selznick—but that even the greatest directors can’t operate entirely without accountability.
I’ve talked about Pixar’s singular culture before, in a much more comprehensive post, so I won’t repeat the same points here. But it seems clear that Pixar’s previous excellence was due to a process that allowed its central brain trust to mercilessly criticize and improve the studio’s works in progress. For Cars 2, this process seems to have broken down, partly because of Lasseter’s deserved stature, and also because of his personal attachment to the Cars franchise. (Pixar has famously canceled other projects, such as Newt, deep into the planning stages because of quality concerns, something it’s hard to imagine happening to Cars 2.) Judging from the outcome, Lasseter needs to return to what he does better than anyone else alive: overseeing the work of the world’s greatest animation studio. If not, he will end up with a legacy more like that of George Lucas than Walt Disney. And that would be a shame.