Cars 2 (2011)

Dear people of Pixar,

I’ve seen the trailer for Brave

It gave me chills. It looks like an enchanting movie. I cannot wait to see it. I’m going to go ahead let my hopes soar, like Carl Fredricksen’s balloon-raised house, right up into the stratosphere. You’ve earned my respect and admiration time and time again, with one standard-setting movie after another.

But that’s not why I’m writing to you.

I’m sorry to say my letter is prompted by less exciting circumstances. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever filed… well, let’s not call it a complaint. Let’s just say I’m a little bit sad today.  I’ve just seen Cars 2, and for the first time since 1988, I’ve been disappointed by one of your movies.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not just a raving fanboy blinded by love. I’ve had my quibbles with some of your past productions. A Bug’s Life felt a little too familiar in the plot department, and for all of the wonders of Monsters Inc., I found one-eyed Mike to be an annoying chatterbox. Still, the strengths in those films far outweighed the weaknesses, and I’ve heartily recommended them.

But today, I need to voice some serious dismay. And I think you can take it. I believe you’re better than George Lucas. That is to say, I hope you’ll hear these words of concern from a big fan, and not just cover your ears and go running to your “Yes Men” who tell you that everything you do is always flawless. (Remember how Return of the Jedi, for all of its strengths, looked like it had been revised to maximize merchandising possibilities? Remember how the prequels became a world of action figures instead of compelling characters?) You’re better than George, right?

So let’s talk about this new Cars movie.

I like Cars a lot. It remains a pleasure to revisit these characters, their personalities, their highways and shortcuts, their stories.

As I endeavored to keep pace with Cars 2… and fell farther and farther behind… I found myself thinking about that first film a lot.

Cars has open spaces. Cars 2 doesn’t.

Cars has visual beauty. Cars 2 overcrowds the screen with details.

Cars moves at the pace of human storytelling. Cars 2 starts loud, and the noise never lets up. Nor does the relentless pace. Whatever clever lines are spoken along the way aren’t allowed to resonate. As Cars reminded us, you can’t appreciate many intricate details or really appreciate the character of a place when you’re doing 70 on the freeway.

Cars dazzled my eyes and warmed my heart. Cars 2 exhausted my eyes and spent so much time hammering at my funny bone with dull, blunt punch-lines that it inspired resistance instead of welcome.

Cars has a very lovable character in Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman), and a hero who earned my respect in Lightning McQueen (voiced so winningly by Owen Wilson). Cars 2 mistakenly assumes that Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) is really funny and enjoyable, and promotes him to Main Character. He was okay as comic relief, but I really don’t think you’ve made him  a strong enough character to serve as the core of a movie, especially one as busy and demanding as this one. Sure, it’s cool to have Michael Caine involved this time, and his character – Finn McMissile – is a blast. But that only makes it more aggravating when he’s pushed aside to give Mater the spotlight.

But here is the most significant and surprising problem I have with Cars 2.

Cars dared to suggest, through the story of Lightning McQueen and how he grew up, that we all have things to learn, ways to improve, and maybe we don’t always know what’s best for ourselves. Cars 2, on the other hand, gives an irresponsible and aggravating character a free pass to go on disrupting things. It dares to suggest that we’re all just fine, thank you very much, and that we should be content to remain ignorant and annoying because Who We Are is more important than Who We Might Become.

I disagree.

Americans are bombarded with affirmations everywhere they turn. Your own movie, The Incredibles, suggested that we should stop congratulating people for their mediocrity, challenge each other to excel, and recognize excellence when we see it. Do the Mater-like goofballs in our lives deserve mockery and scorn? Of course not. But they do deserve to be lovingly encouraged toward improving their behavior, increasing their intelligence, and bettering themselves – just the way McQueen was coaxed toward improvement – rather than being allowed to perpetuate their ignorance and shortcomings in the name of tolerance.

I heartily affirm the review of my good friend and my favorite film critic, Steven Greydanus, who writes,

It’s a mark of the film’s falsity that Lightning, not Mater, is ultimately adjudicated to be in the wrong, while Mater is affirmed “just the way he is.” … “If he is your friend,” someone asks Lightning in what’s meant to pass as a wise, penetrating line, “why do you ask him to be someone he is not?” Um, because making a spectacle of yourself isn’t always acceptable behavior? Later, a contrite Lightning tells Mater, “If anyone has a problem with who you are, they’re the one with the problem.” So when Mater cost him the race, Lightning was the one with the problem?

People of Pixar, you are, in my opinion, the most dependable American film studio. I don’t mean the best animation studio. I mean the best studio… period. Your imaginations are more ambitious and consistently exciting than any others I know.

Looking at your future plans, I see a lot of sequels coming. You proved with the Toy Story series that you can silence the nay-sayers. But even so, I’d encourage you to focus on original storytelling, and only release a sequel if you’re absolutely sure that the story is as strong or stronger than those that came before it. There are so many amazing characters that only your imaginations can fashion, so many enchanting places that only you can take us. The Toy Story trilogy is so perfect as a trilogy, that I’m troubled by the rumors that you’re working on a fourth in the series. Why mess with perfection?

Please pay close attention to the many who are surprised and disappointed by Cars 2. It’s not a bad movie. But until now, you’ve released nothing but extraordinary films. You filled the movie with good ideas, but I think you would do well to listen to those fans who are upset by this one; they have some very valid complaints. Consider this an important learning experience. Consider it “tough love” from the moviegoers who appreciate what you do better than anybody.

I love you guys and believe in you. Otherwise I wouldn’t write this. You’re the brightest bulb in blockbuster filmmaking, and I’d hate to see the glow from that bouncing desk lamp sputter and dim.

Tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.

Be… BRAVE.

To infinity and beyond!

Jeffrey Overstreet

Director – John Lasseter; co-director – Brad Lewis; writer – Ben Queen; based on a story by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis; directors of photography – Sharon Calahan (lighting) and Jeremy Lasky (camera); music – Michael Giacchino; production design – Harley Jessup; producer – Denise Ream. Starring – Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Michael Caine (Finn McMissile), Emily Mortimer (Holley Shiftwell), Eddie Izzard (Miles Axlerod), John Turturro (Francesco Bernoulli), Brent Musburger (himself), Joe Mantegna (Grem), Thomas Kretschmann (Professor Z), Peter Jacobson (Acer), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip), Franco Nero (Uncle Topolino), David Hobbs (David Hobbscap), Tony Shalhoub (Luigi), Jeff Garlin (Otis), Michel Michelis (Tomber), Jason Isaacs (Siddeley/Leland Turbo), Cheech Marin (Ramone) and John Ratzenberger (Mack). Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Studios. 1 hour 47 minutes. Rated G.
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