Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Disney Summer Movies 2011: Strike One

There are four big Disney and Pixar releases this summer. Two of them are my two big summer movies- Winnie the Pooh (Walt Disney Animation Studios)

and The Help (through Touchstone, which is an adult Disney division).

I have been waiting for both of those movies for months, devouring the trailers, which are fantastic, and counting down days. If that doesn't give you a window into my brain, I don't know what does. Winnie the Pooh will be coming out on July 15 and The Help will be released on August 10th. I will let you know what I think when they finally surface.

The big May and June releases have already happened, however, and they are Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and Cars 2. I did not see Pirates and don't really plan to. Maybe eventually. I still haven't seen the first three, to tell the truth. I started watching the first but lost interest about half an hour in and haven't tried again since. From what I've heard I'm not missing all that much and the new sequel doesn't do much to help the series' cause. I will say that I'm glad that it's revived an interest in the ride at the parks, which has always been a favorite of mine. The new movie based audio-animatronics are impressive and the way that they have incorporated the film into the ride honors the original while giving Jack Sparrow to a new generation that expects to see him. They've done well in that regard.

Not the most imaginative poster I've seen...
Over the holiday weekend I saw Cars 2. The only reason I went out of my way is that I had "free" tickets because I had bough blu-rays a while back that came with free tickets as long as they are $8.50 or under. Unfortunately, in New York City, movie tickets are $13. No. Not for 3D. For plain old 2D. But still, it took me 20 convoluted and frustrating minutes to process my free tickets online, so I'll be darned if I wasn't going to use it and $4.50 isn't bad for a movie. Plus I always feel like I can't have a valid opinion on something unless I've seen something for myself.

It hurts my soul to say this, but Pixar has finally produced a movie that is flat out not good. As I've mentioned before, I'm not a fan of the original Cars. In my humble opinion, it was the only dud in the Pixar canon. I was not drawn to any of the characters, the world of the movie asks that I suspend far more disbelief than I am willing to in order for it to make sense, the storytelling was rather weak, the art was well-done but pedestrian, and, frankly, I was bored by it. There were things that I appreciated about it (the attempt to reach out to boys with characters they could instantly bond with, the idea of small town America being just as important as big cities, the lesson of humbling yourself and reaching out to those that are different than you for mentorship and friendship), but it was easily and without question at the bottom by far of my list of Pixar films.

Until now. I actively love all of the Pixar movies and think they are brilliant with two exceptions. I am pretty much neutral on Cars and I now actively dislike Cars 2. Hate is a strong word, and I don't want to use it because I feel like the folks at Pixar pour a lot of time, energy and creativity into their projects. They can certainly be forgiven this one blip when they have set the bar so high for themselves. When it comes down to it, what would have been perfectly acceptable as a direct to video sequel does not cut it as a full-blown theatrical release from the studio that made two sequels to Toy Story that actually got better in quality as the series progressed.

Wait until someone tells them that they can't drive
away from their own movie.  They won't be happy.
There was absolutely nothing that I enjoyed about Cars 2 and a lot of things that really got on my nerves. All of the problems I had with the original were exponentially worse and all of the newer elements were even more grating still. The beating heart of the first movie was Doc Hudson, whose character's absence is swept away in one twenty second scene and never really touched upon again, and Radiator Springs, which is only seen in the very beginning and end. It gives me a bit of insight as to why they are calling the new area of California Adventure Cars Land rather than Radiator Springs. It seems to be all about branding over immersive experience, which is a shame. I'm kind of sad that the movie is getting a whole land at a theme park in the first place.

The new film is a loud, bright sensory assault with lots of explosions and corny humor. It's what we expect of a typical computer animation movie these days. All surface and no depth. Except Pixar movies are not typical computer animation. They are great movies. Some of the best films made by anyone, anywhere, by anyone's standards. I can't help but feel like for the first time Pixar is pandering. They made a film for no other reason really than to sell booty-loads of merch, which they are.

I think they're turning Japanese. I really think so.
I have never been the biggest Mater fan, and the character takes center stage here. The moral of the story want to be "Be yourself" but ends up more like "Perpetuate the stereotype of the Ugly American". But no one pays attention to the lessons to be learned anyway because they are too busy watching things zoom by and blow up. There is what felt like inappropriate violence to the car/people things. One was tortured and then murdered in what seemed like a very cruel manner. Several others die as well. The humor was boneheaded and obvious. The tender scenes felt like nothing but a series of empty platitudes. All attempted emotional payoffs were completely unwarranted and fell flat. The visuals were all eye candy but completely unoriginal. (Tom was amused by the look of the scenes in Japan, though.) The plot was convoluted and the storytelling was way off track. There was self-referencing and catchphrasing that would seem clever in a better movie, but feels lazy here. They put a lot of effort into making things bright and shiny, but it felt like it was only to distract you from the fact that the movie underneath just isn't very good. It worked on the kids around us sometimes. They seemed to get excited when stuff went kapow. Other times they seemed just as bored and confused as we were.

I must say that John Lasseter, who directed and did the story for Cars 1 & 2, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 1 & 2 along with many shorts is probably my least favorite Pixar director. He is often compared to Disney, and I don't think that the comparison is terribly off the mark. It seems that his real strength is as a visionary and as someone who brings out the strengths and talents of others. Disney himself didn't do much of the hands on creation. He was the idea man. I think Lasseter is best when he is in the same kind of position.

I cannot wait for Brave! Have I said that enough yet?
The only thing about the movie that I genuinely liked was the Toy Story short that came before it, which was very good. I'm hoping that this is not a bellwether for Pixar. I'm not too worried since the next film, Brave, which comes out next summer already looks glorious. I don't want to come down too hard on Pixar. I know that they are a business and they they have to established their brand and make money. Do that on DVDs and on store shelves, but not in the theater. We hold Pixar to a higher standard because we know what the studio is capable of and they have very seldom let us down. Hopefully they will pay attention to what seem like less than stellar reviews and not exactly amazing box office and focus on their strengths- innovation and storytelling.

As for me, I am looking forward to my trip to the Hundred Acre Wood in ten days. Did anybody else see Cars 2? What were your thoughts? Am I way far off course or did you think that the movie was a big old lemon, too?


  1. We went to Cars 2 last week for a friend's son's birthday party. I wasn't looking forward to the movie, (I was so bored by Cars), just the experience. There is something so cute about a row full of 4 year olds eating their popcorn, engrossed in a movie. The problem was that most of them weren't entertained for long. Dyllan watched most of it but only because I kept making her sit down and not disturb everyone else around her. There were quite a few kids running around and I don't like her to be "that kid".
    From the bits of the movie I got to watch, when I wasn't entertaining my kids, I thought it was better than the first Cars. I really found the first Cars boring and I didn't care about any of the characters - especially Mater and McQueen. Mater didn't bother me as much in this one - maybe because I was distracted. ;)
    The scene where they torture and murder the spy car was awful.
    I have no desire to watch it again.
    I am looking forward to Winnie the Pooh though! =)

  2. I agree with everything you said. It's just a flat out bad movie... I couldn't even really follow the plot.