With 'Cars 2,' has Pixar become like everyone else (and is that a bad thing)?
For the last decade, Pixar has pulled off one of the great runs in movie history. Until this weekend, it had released eight films, and every single one of them became a runaway blockbuster (at least $200 million in domestic box office) and a critical darling (not a single one got below 70% on the Rotten Tomatoes website).
It was a run, like Joe DiMaggio in the batter's box or Roger Federer at a Grand Slam semifinal, that seemed impossible for the company to keep replicating, and seemed even less likely to ever be broken by anyone else. (It lasts even longer if you throw in the company's trio of 1990s movies, which didn't all hit $200 million but were financial successes just the same.)
But all hot spells must come to an end, and indeed, one of Pixar's two streaks ended this weekend. "Cars 2" did open to $68 million, putting it on pace for another $200-million gross. The movie, however, left critics cold, garnering only a 34% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as my colleagues Patrick Day and Rebecca Keegan note in an article in Monday's Los Angeles Times.
Audiences came out, but they came out to a movie that, at least by one measure of quality, was muddling around down there with the rest of summer's moneymaking mediocrities. "Cars 2's" Rotten Tomatoes score was just half of its two-digit box-office total, a disparity that puts it in the same camp as "Green Lantern" (Rotten Tomatoes score: 26%. Opening-weekend: $53 million.)
In a way, the fact that "Cars 2" attracted audiences despite the weak reviews could feel more unsettling than if it had performed poorly at the box office. The lesson of Pixar's long run has not only been that a massively sized, big-budget Hollywood operation can consistently create films of quality, but that this quality was integral to its success. Other studios often churn out indistinguishable, derivative entertainment that makes gobs of money. But at John Lasseter's Pixar, impeccable storytelling and huge popularity move in perfect alignment. The company puts out high-end films, and we come out because of that.
In noting what they didn't like about "Cars 2" (in many instances, the noise and the focus on the broad character of Mater), critics didn't just evaluate the film but judged it in the larger world of its studio. "It actually hurts to knock one of [Pixar's] movies," wrote Indiewire critic Leonard Maltin. (Whether critics were harder on the movie in the first place because Pixar is held to a higher standard is an interesting question, though the subject of a different post.)
There are those who will say that in making the "Cars" sequel in the first place, Pixar put the licensing cart first (the first had taken in an estimated $10 billion in global merchandising). And for those who think sequelization is an inherent problem, there are reasons for concern about the studio. Pixar will soon bring out a "Monsters, Inc." sequel, and there are already rumblings that the company is quietly developing a third "Cars" film. But it's of course still way too early to worry about Pixar; there's far too much of a track record, not to mention a record of steady stewardship, for that.
Even more interesting as this debate unfolds is the question of a Pixar effect -- that is, a level of quality that has lifted all animation boats. Pixar may have slipped, but only after prompting other studios to raise their game. Many attribute Paramount's taking a chance on Gore Verbinski's "Rango" to the success of sophisticated animated movies at Pixar, for example. And "Rio," Fox's spring hit and critical darling, was so close to Pixar's values that it actually caused the Lasseter-run company to shelve one of its own projects (an exotic-animal movie titled "Newt"). That may be of small comfort for those accustomed to a Pixar gem every summer, but it does makes it a little easier to wake up and look under the pillow.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Cars 2." Credit: Pixar