This Movie Makes No Sense: “Cars 2”


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Earlier this week at a press junket for “John Carter,” Disney producer Lindsey Collins suggested that a Pixar backlash was to blame for “Cars 2″‘s lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. “I think it had the fact that Pixar has dominated going against it,” Collins told Movieline. “At a certain point there was going to be somebody who was going to take the fall a little bit. It was going to be like, ‘Eh, we don’t like that one.’”

Was there a Pixar backlash? Perhaps. It definitely felt like a few critics took an undue amount of glee in finally getting an opportunity to savage a film from the vaunted Pixar Animation Studios. In their sixteen year history making animated feature films prior to “Cars 2,” Pixar had never received a negative score on Rotten Tomatoes. Even 2006’s “Cars” — supposedly “the bad Pixar movie” according to some critics — earned a respectable 74% on the movie review aggregator. But if critics were lukewarm on the first film in the series, they were bitterly cold on its sequel, which ultimately wound up with a rotten 39% Tomatometer rating. The reviews were scathing, a veritable festival of anti-pull-quotes. “A mess!” declared the Associated Press. “Surprisingly tedious!” moaned ReelViews. “Utterly ordinary!” kvetched The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

If you’re looking for someone to refute the bad vibes, to explain how everyone missed the boat and why “Cars 2” is a misunderstood masterpiece, you’re parking in the wrong garage. “Cars 2” is a mess, and its plot is, at times, surprisingly tedious. It is easily the worst film ever produced by the animation wizards at Pixar. It’s not, however, “utterly ordinary.” In fact, “Cars 2” is a bit more interesting — and a whole lot weirder — than you’ve heard. Ordinary? A film about sentient automobiles existing on a planet exactly like our own except for its total lack of human life, engaged in auto racing (a sensible occupation for cars) and international espionage (a less sensible one)? A film with car toilets and car bidets and car food and car sleeping gas? Sorry, no ordinary film makes this little sense.

Of course, the living, (apparently) breathing cars first appeared in the original “Cars,” directed, like its sequel, by head Pixar honcho John Lasseter. But they invited less questions that time around. “Cars” was largely confined to the comings and goings of a sleepy town called Radiator Springs, where a race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) got stranded on his way to the big finale of the NASCAR-ish Piston Cup. Though inspired by a Lasseter family vacation along the old Route 66, Radiator Springs was an entirely fictitious setting. It felt divorced enough from our own reality to let the inherent strangeness of its premise — a universe of cars without humans who, according to my vague recollections of elementary school social studies, were the ones who invented cars in the first place — slide. Anthropomorphic cars. Fine.

The expanded setting and more complicated plot of “Cars 2,” though, make the larger implications of this world harder to ignore. This time out, Lightning is invited to participate in the World Grand Prix, with races all over the globe. While in Tokyo for the first leg of the WGP, Lightning’s dopey sidekick Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) gets mistaken for an American spy by British secret agent Finn McMissle (Michael Caine). While Lightning drives through the World Grand Prix, Mater participates in a series of James Bond-style chases and “car-ate” fights to protect the world from evildoers who wish to interrupt the races and discredit its sponsor, a new alternative fuel source named Allinol.

If the cars are searching for an alternative fuel source, then they must be using a non-alternative fuel source — and, sure enough, “Cars 2″‘s opening sequence, inspired by the pre-credits adventures of 007 in thrillers like “The Spy Who Loved Me,” follows Finn McMissile as he sneaks aboard an enormous off-shore drilling platform. In other words: the cars of “Cars” need gas. Fair enough; but if cars need gas to run, and the gas needs to be sucked out of the ground just like it does in our reality, how did the cars function before they built their first oil wells?

Exactly what the cars need to survive is massively confusing in general. The cars require gas (or Allinol), but they can also apparently eat as well, ingesting foodstuffs through the enormous cartoon mouths on their front bumpers (their mouths also sport teeth and tongues, which must freak out potheads when they watch this movie). The World Grand Prix’s launch party in Japan features a free food buffet, including wasabi that Mater mistakes for pistachio ice cream. As you might expect, Mater eats too much and is sent scrambling for water. The existence of wasabi means the existence of organic foods which would be unnecessary (or impossible) in a world without humans or animals. Then again, Mater mistakes wasabi for pistachio ice cream, which implies the existence of ice cream, which implies the existence of cows. But where are they? Who milks them? And how?

Cars need to make pit stops just like humans do, but still, it’s a bit unsettling to learn the cars use bathrooms like the one Mater patronizes in “Cars 2.” During the aforementioned Japan sequence, Mater begins “leaking” and dashes off to the lavatory. You might expect a car’s bathroom to look like a car wash, but no, a car’s public restroom looks exactly like a human one, right down to the mirrors and sinks (even though the cars don’t have hands to wash in them).

Mater uses a toilet stall and gets roughed up by a parody of Japanese “Super Toilets” that include high-tech features like bidets and heated seats. Lasseter has said in interviews that “Cars 2” was inspired by the international press tour for “Cars 1,” and it seems likely that he himself might have had a bewildering altercation with a crazily elaborate Japanese toilet. But that still leaves me wondering: WHY DOES A CAR NEED TO USE THE GODDAMN BATHROOM?

Let’s talk about God for a second. The cars seem to have one, as a race in Italy is attended by The Popemobile. During a stopover in Paris, we also see Notre Dame Cathedral which sports clever “car-goyle” statues amongst its spires and arches. These are all clever visual jokes, but the film doesn’t dwell on them, probably because if it did you’d start to think about them, and when you start to think about them the whole thing falls apart. If God created man — or cars — in his own image, that would seem to suggest God, at least in this batshit crazy universe, is a car too (probably a Lamborghini).

Here’s another one that stumped me. The final leg of the World Grand Prix is in London, where the Queen is both a spectator and the potential target of Finn McMissile’s enemies. Eventually, the heroes defeat the villains, and Mater gets knighted by a thankful Queen. A Queen car! So there’s car royalty! How does that work? The English royal bloodline goes back centuries — does the English car royal bloodline work the same way? If it goes back even two or three generations, that’s before the invention of cars. Was Queen Crown Victoria, say, a horse-drawn carriage? Did the cars evolve from lesser forms of transportation? How does Darwin fit in here? If all of human history played out basically as it did in Cars Land, what did Ancient Greece look like? Or the American Civil War?

So many questions. I’ve spent so much time dwelling on the larger theological and political implications of a world of cars I haven’t even mentioned the more practical puzzlers, like the strange choices surrounding which characters returned from the first “Cars” for the sequel. If Doc Hudson was killed off in deference to the passing of his voice, Paul Newman, why did they recast George Carlin’s character Fillmore? It all makes no sense.

Actually, while this movie makes no sense to me, an alleged adult, it might make perfect sense to a child. Kids, after all, routinely anthropomorphize their toy cars with nary a thought to rationality or continuity. The charmingly human world of “Cars” speaks to a child’s logic even as it confounds an adult’s. That’s why this series has become Pixar’s second-most successful franchise and a huge cashcow for Disney even though it’s never connected with parents in the same way more respected and literate Pixar films like “WALL-E” and “Up” did. It may not have earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but I’m sure in the universe of “Cars” it would have won every single award given to movies. And the statuettes would have been shaped like the open source car — or OSCar for short. Just don’t ask why.

What part of “Cars 2” makes the least amount of sense? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was narrated by Robert Evans and based on his memoir of the same name. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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