We hoped it would never happen, but no one is perfect. Even the best can stumble. This had to happen eventually. Even the string of terrific Disney's classic films and the 90s Disney Renaissance didn't last forever. I'm afraid that, yes, Pixar has made a bad film.
Cars 1 was their least ambitious film. The story was predictable and character development obvious making it their most mediocre film. It was good but it lacked that little extra touch that made their films great. However, they had some great side characters, a heart, and wonderful scenes that elevated it up beyond most other films. But ever since this film's announcement I always wondered why. McQueen had his story and there's not much else to tell. Like Finding Nemo, where else is there to go? And I'd rather see sequels to better movies like The Incredibles, even Bug's Life seems to have more potential. It's easy to see why they made a sequel to it, since all you need to do is go to Disneyland or any Disney Store and see it covered in McQueen and Mater, which happened to be two my of three year-old cousin's first words. Off all the Pixar films, Cars made the most with the merchandise.
The biggest problem is the story. Cars 1, while predictable, was touching. Cars 2 has almost no heart or character development. The focus shifts from McQueen to Mater. McQueen had his story in the first and there's little to tell here. He has one character moment that's essentially the same realization as the first film's. The problem with Mater is that he's such a simple character. Everything about him is on the surface for all to see. He's the same person throughout the movie, with one predictable realization which goes no where, that he doesn't warrant his own film. He's like Kronk from The Emperor's New Groove. They're both terrific side characters but lack enough complexity for a full story. And Larry the Cable Guy has always been better with the other Blue Collar guys rather than on his own.
While Cars 1's highlight was its side characters, this movie almost abandons them. They do nothing. McMissile is a moving plot device and little more. Shiftwell is supposed to be a love interest but lacks any interesting moments. The rest of Radiator Springs basically sit back while McQueen and Mater have all the fun. Their stories and character are pushed aside so Larry can have fun being Mater. Because of this, there are almost no funny little side scenes where characters just have fun being themselves. Instead, most of the humor is derived from seeing Mater do silly things.
The look is impressive but not more than anything else Pixar's done. With each movie, the studio has pushed the graphics into new levels. Each movie has had some wow moment where audiences can't help but be amazed by what they're seeing. There were times in Cars 1 when it looked almost real. Cars 2 lacks any wow factor. One of the most impressive sets, Tokyo, were already spoiled by the Tokyo Mater short. This more than anything makes me wonder if Pixar was even trying to up the ante or if they were just using what they had to make a movie a year.
Spies and Cars seems to work well together. After all, any Bond or Bourne film will easily demonstrate why the two go together. Indeed, the opening scene on the drilling platform is easily the best with the fast chase and cool gadgets. But they weren't able to properly combine the racing and spy elements, almost as if you're watching two movies at once. There's too much spy stuff for the racing to be interesting, which becomes pointless against the overpowering and overly cliched spy story. Perhaps Pixar should have set it as simply a spy movie set in the Cars universe and had McQueen and his friends in cameos or as a background story.
Another lousy spot is the music. Cars 1 had a terrific soundtrack with excellent uses of popular songs like Life is a Highway and Route 66. But there's not one memorable song or music cue in this movie. Giacchino usually does terrific work like with The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Up. But he too fumbles the ball here. Perhaps he was just uninspired by what he had to work with.
Cars is Lasseter's pet project. But I think he's too close to it. He's got that Lucas Star Wars prequel trilogy problem. The people around him either were in awe of the man who made Pixar and Toy Story or they were afraid to hurt his feelings since he loves the Cars franchise so much. Pixar efforts have been so well done because they were collaborative efforts, each fixing each other's problems to make a better project. But with Lasseter off working more directly with Disney, he really should have had a co-director or perhaps given the reins to someone else like he did with Toy Story 3.
I almost rated this movie higher. It is fun while you're watching it, even if as soon as it's over it becomes too easy to pick apart the problems. But this is Pixar. They've dominated the animation market since Toy Story and have been pushing the boundaries at the Academy Awards ever since. To see them stumble with a not-so-great film would be one thing. But they're coming off from two Best Picture nominees to a movie that's simply flashy but with little substance. Kids will love the bright colors and silly antics, but parents will hate having to then buy twelve new Mater toys. Cars 2 is stalled and in need of a tune-up.