Pixar and the Price of Excellence

I have a small child, so I was legally obligated to take her to see Cars 2 this weekend. By Friday, I’d already read a bunch of unflattering reviews. (I found the one in The Onion AV Club particularly ominous.) However, I’ve never been steered wrong by Pixar before. So I figured, if it wasn’t up to their usually exacting standards, it would at least be enjoyable.

If anything, the reviews I read had undersold the disappointment that awaited me. Cars 2 was terrible, and thanks to its trusted source, depressingly so. The true depths of my feelings were best expressed by A.O. Scott in The New York Times, discussing how former sidekick Tow Mater took center stage for this film : “I doubt anyone will protest much, but Pixar has now found its redneck Jar-Jar Binks. Such a proud moment.” Harsh words–I imagine one day Godwin’s Law will expand to include invocations of Jar-Jar Binks. However, they are sadly accurate.

When I complained about Cars 2 later on Twitter, a friend responded that they found it no worse than Madagascar. My initial response is to say, Pixar should be better than Madagascar. But then I also wonder if that’s entirely fair. I can’t think of an artist in any other medium–film, music, literature–who’s produced such great art for so long without slipping. Going back to the first Toy Story movie, Pixar’s been knocking it out of the park for almost two decades. Can I allow them one weak pop-up to the shortstop?

On the one hand, no, because movie tickets ain’t cheap. If I pay good money for something, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect it to be a quality product. So I guess the question is, how much quality is reasonable to expect. If I’ve come to expect a certain level of entertainment from Pixar, should I expect them to deliver at that level every time out, or at least close to it? Or is Pixar an unwitting victim of its own excellence?

Other computer animators have gotten closer to Pixar in terms of what they can do with medium. I saw Tangled last year and thought it came the closest so far to closing the gap between Pixar and everyone else. This was in part because, as a Disney product, Tangled had some Pixar assistance in its production. Still, Pixar no longer has the technological advantage it did when they invented the feature-length computer animated film.

Even as this gap closed, what separated Pixar films has been a level of sophistication and maturity that is lacking in many grown-up movies, let alone ones made for kids. Every film up until Cars 2 has very clear stakes beyond a fanciful, artificial competition or race to a finish line. No matter what the main characters in the movie are–toys, rats, robots–Pixar films have very real connections or parallels to what actual humans go through, and tackle subjects that other movies won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Very few movies of any kind capture the painful aspects of parenting, and letting go as your children get older, that Finding Nemo and The Incredibles do. Almost none come close to addressing death the way that Up or Toy Story 3 do. You have to look long and hard to find a movie that trusts its audience as much as Wall-E, which has virtually no dialogue for the first 45 minutes. Some of these movies are better than others, but they’re all admirable.

Then comes Cars 2, a movie where there is almost no connection to anything real. Many Pixar movies lack characters who are people, but Cars 2 is the first one that doesn’t feel human. It has the feel of something templated, stamped out of a mold on the same assembly line that produced dreck like Shark Tale.

In stark contrast to other Pixar movies, no one changes in Cars 2. No one grows, and there are no discernible stakes. Bad guys chase Tow Mater around the world while Lightning McQueen tries to win a grand prix. The two protagonists have a minor quarrel when Mater costs lightning a leg of the race. Before long, they make up. Good guys win. Everyone has a dumb race in Radiator Springs. The end.

Pixar movies have always celebrated excellence, so it’s depressing to watch them make a movie in which the main character bumbles his way through life in an aggressively, willfully ignorant way. Tow Mater travels all over the world, listens to no one, learns nothing. He is essentially Larry the Cable Guy, right down to repeating the man’s well-worn catchphrases. Not a stupid person, just an ignorant one who has no interest learning something he doesn’t already know–the complete opposite of the lesson taught in every other Pixar film.

The movie even closes out with Mater being offered a chance to go on another spy mission, since he unwittingly proved himself worthy of this. Another Pixar film would show its hero discovering his/her talent and pursuing a dream (see: Ratatouille). In Cars 2, Mater stays in Radiator Springs because friends are important, or something. Hooray?

That seems to be the moral of Cars 2, if there is one: Friends are good! The problem is, there’s never any real connection between any character in the film. They’re friends because they’re friends, and that’s supposed to be enough for the audience to understand their relationships. Tow Mater feels remorse over messing up his friend’s effort to win the grand prix, and this is supposed to mean something to us. Let’s say his friendship with Lightning McQueen ends–then what? What is at stake for the two of them? What do they bring to one another that it’s vital they remain friends? Other Pixar films ask and answer these kinds of questions. This one does not.

Having said all of this, I can’t decide if I’m so disappointed because of the film’s actual quality or what I’ve come to expect from Pixar. It’s certainly not the worst animated movie I’ve ever seen; go watch Bee Movie some time if you wanna see a truly unfocused mess. (Actually, just take my word for it; DO NOT watch Bee Movie.) The animation is spectacular, of course, and the little background touches in the different international locales (particularly Tokyo) are responsible for the movie’s only genuinely amusing moments. It’s the main thing that keeps Cars 2 from the level of a straight-to-DVD sequel.

Had Cars 2 been made by anyone else, I would probably just shrug it off as not being very good and not be so bummed out. And yet, Cars 2 is so by-the-book and so obviously calculated for pure merchandising purposes (not that their other movies weren’t licensed to the hilt) in a way Pixar’s other movies weren’t that I have the feeling of being let down by an artist I came to trust. And not like Neil Young putting out an electronic album because he feels like like being weird for a while. This is more like Fugazi, out of nowhere, deciding to be in a Coke commercial. Nothing they’ve said or done would make you think they would remotely go in that direction, then all of a sudden, without warning, you hear “Waiting Room” over close-up shots of soda poured on ice cubes.

I suppose that’s the price of being as consistently excellent as Pixar has been for as long as they’ve been. People don’t just like you, they believe in you. You’re not just expected to produce something of quality, you’re expected to produce a masterpiece. And so releasing something that is not up to your implied standards is more than disappointing. It’s upsetting.

The pressure to produce under these circumstances must be crushing, and so I can forgive Pixar a bump in the road. It just feels weird having to do so.

One thought on “Pixar and the Price of Excellence”

  1. I haven’t seen either Cars movie, or everything by Pixar, but I did see their very first film of the hopping lamp which is in their logo. It was in a shorts program and I remember being so stunned and pleased.u00a0nnYour review sounds spot on I will say that there have been hints of things that have bothered me within movies they’ve made that I loved and that did bother me. Because I want them to be better than that, and it’s disappointing to read how bad the film is, mostly in a way it seems is just lazy.u00a0nnI love the Incredibles, I’ve seen it numerous times. However even at the time I saw it in the theater I found the freshly minted post-9/11, ‘Mission Accomplished’ plot undercurrents a little bit ham-fisted, despite it being a great movie. A few sci-fi novelists I liked ruined my good feelings about their work with books they issued at a similar time. I realized I was looking at a great movie, but which had some subtly reactionary political undercurrents. I didn’t find that to be offensive but I found it disappointing. It probably would have bothered me significantly more if the film were not so excellent.nnSpecifically what bugged me, the plot has the somewhat right wing idea that fear of lawsuits had the government forcing inferiority and sameness onto these super characters. Like superior folks are just not able to to be as awesome as they can be because of our system which rewards mediocrity and oppresses the privileged. The villain is particularly sadistic and evil, and it sort of bugged me that his main character flaw seemed to be that he tried to compensate for not being born incredibly gifted and privileged was to try and create those powers for himself by using hisu00a0intelligenceu00a0and ingenuity and eventual wealth to give himself artificial powers. This is a result of his outsized hurt pride and ego, but with a few changes, this character is not really far from Batman. There’s nothing evil about building technology to do things that people can’t but it seems like it’s the main facet of his evil.u00a0

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