Saturday, June 25, 2011

Well, Apparently Somebody Asked.

Tonight's movie: Cars 2.

This is probably not a film that needs my review. No one is likely to see it without having first seen the original Cars, or at least another Pixar film, and then you know the protocol. The specifics are almost incidental: Mater bumbles himself into an international spy caper and hijinks and mayhem ensue.

But still, a fella chews on stuff. Pixar's first feature, Toy Story (1995) was world-changing. Featuring computer-based animation, Toy Story was a visual revelation, but it also sported top-shelf voicework and a cracking good story well-directed. It had a look and pacing and story that were bound to attract kids like puppies, and enough adult humor and nostalgic references to keep their parents happy. The desire to make a sequel (or two) of this film was a surprise to no one--it seemed inevitable.

But Pixar's history shows that the sequel thing really isn't their bag--with that one exception. Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and especially The Incredibles: with fabulous plotting and really wonderful characters, these all fairly begged for follow-on films. The Incredibles pointedly left that door open with the film's final scene.

What I didn't expect was for Pixar to make a sequel to Cars. The original film's very premise--talking, expressive cars having adventures in a cars-only world--seemed highly dubious to me, and I've always thought it Pixar's least successful outing. Not that I'd give it a sub-par grade: they rounded up, as always, a stellar cast of voices and the plotting and pacing were delightfully fast and furious. And the visuals just get better and better with each successive film. On reflection, it's not surprising that little boys fell head-over-heels for a bunch of talking cars, especially a talking race car and his hilarious rusty tow-truck best buddy; but I would not have put money on that reaction justifying a sequel. Particularly, I would not have expected Pixar to make so blatant a marketing move solely for the narrow demographic of pre-pubescent males (no other of their films seems so pointedly aimed at a specific demographic).

But then it strikes you: there was no substantial merchandising for any of Pixar's films, apart from the occasional t-shirt, before Cars. And then it apparently took off like a shot. One of my good friends has a son who has amassed everything Cars, and I can imagine he is pee-his-pants excited for the new film--and all the merchandise that comes with it. And so, Cars 2. I'm so inclined to feel contempt and angst about this, about the pollution of what has seemed a pure, if popular, art endeavor until now. Maybe that's quite naive of me: none of these films would have been made if the previous ones didn't make money. But I would venture that Toy Story or Ratatouille or The Incredibles were never just, or even primarily, about making money. When we get to Cars you can't really say that. I just see nothing to celebrate in that.

And Cars 2 is kind of the proof in the pudding. It's the same great voices (plus a couple new ones: Michael Caine as "Finn McMissile, British Intelligence," and Emily Mortimer as Finn's trusty analyst sidekick), it has the same beautiful look and attention to detail, the same fabulous whimsical cartoon departure from reality, the same edge-of-your-seat plotting. But Cars 2 has absolutely nothing new to say. The first movie covered all this ground quite adequately. This is not a new routine, it's the stadium tour of the old routine for revenue-gathering purposes. (In fact, there's a sense that it's relying at least a little on the accomplishments of the first film to carry us, at least with some of the characters.) True, Looney Tunes weren't always about introducing something new with every episode, but they were a low-tech, low-dollar daily kinda phenomenon (and for all that they did some edgy and far-out stuff). Pixar is an industrial behemoth making a multimillion-dollar product of long gestation: it seems a little strange and sad to devote this herculean effort to a mere sequel. One expects more.

And lastly, the 3D business. The theater where I saw Cars 2 was showing it only in 3D (for a $1.50 premium over the standard matinee price). Roger Ebert, much as I love reading his reviews and much as I admire how he is using the virtual world to lead a rich intellectual and social existence after his cancer, has found his bete noir in cinema 3D. I daresay he has written and tweeted more about the stupidity of 3d in the past couple years than any other topic. (Well, I can't really say that: let's just say a lot.) He really hates it.

And while I think I'm inclined to agree with him about technology pushed for its own sake, in this case I can't quite make up my mind. I think a rough analogy can be made with surround sound. When surround sound first started showing up in theaters I was immediately skeptical. And now that 5.1 channel surround sound has taken over home audio so completely that it's difficult to find stand-alone home stereo equipment that's not "home theater-ready" (with its phalanx of plastic speaker pods) I'm convinced that we have fallen victim en masse to a marketing ploy. I suppose it's "cool" in some way for the occasional gun ricochet or passing car sound to shout from behind one's head, but there is not one iota of additional realism imparted by the technology. We're not even close to being fooled into thinking we're actually there, that we're not watching a screen and listening to speakers. (I contrast this with the value of full-range sound, both frequency- and volume-wise. I don't think full-range sound makes the movie more realistic per se, but I do think it contributes to greater enjoyment of films, which devote much more attention to sound than in past times.)

3D seems similar to this, except that I have more trouble determining that its contribution is completely bullshit. Of course these early 3D films contain a few too many look-at-this shots of things flying out into the audience, but I find I can't just dismiss the 3D experience out of hand. A great film will continue to be a great film without 3D--a film like Chinatown would benefit little from the technology. And yet stereoscopic vision is how we see, and film is predominantly a visual medium. Even a scene of, say, a gathering at the kitchen table takes on a little snap of something with 3D, a sense (if I dare say it) that yes, you might actually be among these people (cringing against Roger Ebert's thrown shoe). If it isn't quite that profound, it certainly feels to me that it moves the experience at least a little ways in that direction.

On the negative side, the required glasses are hot and not very comfortable and, maybe key for a Pixar film, they dim the image somewhat. This detracts from the film's texturing and lighting and color saturation--all things for which Pixar is known. So there's a trade-off for the technology that I'm unsure how to account. Stay tuned.

As for Cars 2--I must assign some demerits for retracing their steps, but it's still a fun way to spend a couple of hours, especially (as my buddy Lance might attest) with a young son cackling away in the theater seat next to you!

Grade: B-


dbackdad said...

We didn't see it in 3D but it seems like it would be a movie that lends itself well to the format.

By no means was the movie deep like other Pixar movies that are very much not just good animated films ... they are good (or great) films that have something to say about the human condition. This movie had a viewpoint but didn't necessarily break any ground emotionally. As you say, it was a fun diversion, but doesn't leave one with anything lasting. Even when there were Toy Story sequels, each was distinctly different and had something to say about childhood and friendship.

I sympathize with Ebert's viewpoint on 3D but I'm not so down on it as he is. There have been some movies that are specifically shot with it in mind and fully take advantage of the medium (Avatar, How to Train your Dragon most notably). But, in general, 3D is an afterthought and detracts.

wunelle said...

Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Previous Pixar films always flirt with the profound but in a greatly entertaining fashion. This one got the entertainment part, but that's it. And that's OK, I guess ("Just don't make a habit of it!").

You'll have to let me know if you see it in 3D. I find a day later my impressions of movie and format are mostly positive.