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Was ‘Cars 2’ Underrated?

Are you buying John Lasseter’s belated defense of ‘Cars 2’? The Pixar guru, who co-directed the June release, took to the pages of the New York Times on Monday to insist that the summer sequel — Pixar’s first movie to disappoint critics — wasn’t a crass grab at merchandising money. Instead, ‘Cars 2’ was truly as personal and as heartfelt as the more beloved Pixar films, and on that point — judging by the global box office — audiences seemed to agree. With the DVD due for release in a couple weeks and the Academy about to shortlist the movies eligible for Best Animated Feature, it’s clear why Lasseter would speak out now. Still, what if he’s right? Did ‘Cars 2’ get an undeserved thrashing from the critical community? Is it better than reviewers thought? Does it actually have a shot at an Oscar?

‘Cars 2’ was the first film in Pixar’s celebrated history to earn middling to poor reviews. The movie got some raves from reputable critics (notably, Roger Ebert and The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy), but most were disappointed by what they saw as the film’s lack of originality or magic. Considering the high bar set by the one-two-three punch of ‘Wall-E,’ ‘Up,’ and ‘Toy Story 3,’ critics were bound to consider a Pixar movie that was merely “good” to be mediocre or worse: some thought the film was outright bad, just a mercenary effort to sell more toys.

The Times hints that critics’ real beef was with the notion that Pixar is now just another Hollywood sausage factory, cranking out sequels. But that claim makes no sense, given the rapturous critical response to ‘Toy Story 3’ just a year ago. (Critics don’t hate sequels, just superfluous sequels.) There’s also a hint in the article that critics are big-city elitists who have little appreciation for race cars and NASCAR culture. That’s an insulting claim, too. Some of the most positive reviews came from critics in Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston (not exactly NASCAR towns), while some of the most hostile came from critics in Charlotte, Austin, New Orleans, St. Petersburg, and Phoenix.

If critics were disappointed, audiences embraced the film, right? So says the Times, citing the movie’s $ 551 million worldwide gross, about $ 90 million more than ‘Cars’ drove off with five years ago. In North America, however, ‘Cars 2’ earned just $ 191 million, compared to $ 244 million for ‘Cars.’ Among Pixar’s 12 movies, ‘Cars 2’ ranks 11th in domestic box office, above only ‘A Bug’s Life,’ which earned $ 163 million. (Adjusting for inflation, it’s clear that ‘Bug’s Life’ sold about 10.5 million more tickets than ‘Cars 2.’) So American moviegoers were disappointed, too, at least compared to the usual level of enthusiasm they’ve shown for Pixar at the box office.

Lasseter’s spin to the Times glosses over the movie’s weak domestic performance. “I reached deep into myself and saw what this film was about, and I think it’s clear that audiences have responded,” he said. “It is a very, very special film to me.” He also told the Times that the movie was based on his own original idea, that rumors that parent company Disney forced the sequel upon him were “not true,” and that ‘Cars 2’ was not just a merchandising opportunity but an attempt to tell an entertaining story that was no more mercenary than any other Pixar film. “My job, my focus, my deepest desire is to entertain people by making great movies,” he said, “and we did that with ‘Cars 2.'”

The Times suggests that Lasseter’s defense of the film is tied to the DVD release (due Nov. 1) and the imminent announcement by the Academy of the films eligible for Best Animated Feature consideration. It also suggests that ‘Cars 2’ is a frontrunner in the race. That may be true, but only because of Pixar’s history of dominating the category. In truth, while ‘Cars 2’ will almost certainly be deemed eligible, its lack of critical support and underwhelming domestic box office will hurt its chances for victory. Besides, it’s likely to be up against such films as the more original ‘Rango’ and the more crowd-pleasing ‘Kung Fu Panda 2.’

The Times also suggests that the less-than-smooth reception for ‘Cars 2’ — and Lasseter’s need to defend it — are part of some growing pains at Pixar. For all its successes, the animation studio is facing some issues now, from criticism over Pixar’s dearth of female protagonists (or writers, or directors), to the talent drain as directors like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird move on to live-action features, to the recent death of Steve Jobs (who shepherded the company from a George Lucas castoff to a $ 7.4 billion power player). The overall picture, the Times suggests, is of a company that prides itself as an outsider, an upstart, an underdog figuring out how to maintain its independence and creative edge now that it’s firmly rooted in Hollywood and is a major part of the Disney empire.

Lasseter didn’t directly address these concerns, but he insisted that every decision that’s made is still to serve the story and not some other agenda. “No amount of great animation is going to save a bad story,” he said. “That’s why we go so far to make it right.” He also insisted that the company is still about taking creative risks, not about doing what’s safe in order to pad the bottom line. “When a lot of money is at stake, as there is with these films, there is the tendency to try something you know you can land,” he said. “We simply don’t do that.”

Can such talk persuade Oscar voters and DVD customers? It’s doubtful, though disc users probably already know whether or not they want to buy ‘Cars 2’ and will likely send the film racing up the DVD charts no matter what Lasseter says. A better question would be: can Pixar persuade the critics and viewers who felt they got burned on ‘Cars 2’ to poly up for the next Pixar opus? (It’s ‘Brave,’ a fantasy set in ancient Scotland, with Pixar’s first female protagonist, due for release in June 2012.) Almost certainly, given the studio’s otherwise stellar track record. But there’ll be a lot more skepticism and scrutiny after ‘Cars 2,’ a lot more checking under the hood and kicking the tires before declaring the vehicle roadworthy.

[via NYT]

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