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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Pixar shocker: Critics give 'Cars 2' a big thumbs down

June 24, 2011 |  1:13 pm

Pixar The Wall Street Journal's headline says it all: " 'Cars 2' Is a Dollar-Driven Edsel." OMG! Pixar's amazing critical winning streak is over. And in a big way. Until now, Pixar had released 11 movies, none of which had ever dipped below 70 on the Rotten Tomatoes fresh rating scale, which aggregates reviews from around the country. In fact, except for the original "Cars," none of Pixar's 11 films had ever ended up with less than a 90 score at Rotten Tomatoes, with the "Toy Story" threesome all earning either a 99 or a 100.

But the 12th film in the Pixar pantheon isn't faring so well. "Cars 2" is Pixar's first critical dud, currently idling at a lowly 35 at Rotten Tomatoes, putting it in the same territory as, ahem, such summer sludge as "The Hangover 2" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." There have been a few positive notices, including one from my colleague Kenneth Turan, but most of the reviews have taken no prisoners. As the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips put it: " 'Cars 2' had every chance to improve upon the leisurely 2006 animated feature from Pixar.... Yet here we are, stuck with a merchandising assembly line in lieu of a movie. This ranks as Pixar's weakest project to date, as well as the first from the animation powerhouse that can be described as craven."

The Associated Press' Christy Lemire, who usually has a good feel from mainstream releases, was just as blunt. As she described it: " 'Cars 2' is one thing a family-friendly summer blockbuster should never be: boring." Even the Detroit News' Tom Long, writing from the heart of car country, didn't mince any words. "You go into 'Cars 2' expecting a Corvette," he wrote. "You end up with a Cavalier." Ouch! In Detroit, that is a serious insult.

So what went wrong? I'll have more to say in an upcoming column, but I guess it was inevitable that Pixar would finally hit a speed bump in its long run of critically beloved films. Monday morning quarterbacks will surely be wondering why Pixar guru John Lasseter decided to make a sequel for "Cars," the least beloved of all the films in the Pixar universe, having scored a 70 at Rotten Tomatoes upon its release in 2006. As a host of critics have pointed out, the new film's storyline takes a strange turn, largely abandoning the likable Lightning McQueen and focusing most of its narrative energy on the more one-note personality of Mater, who is voiced (in a wildly exaggerated Southern drawl) by Larry the Cable Guy. 

We are also entitled to engage in a bit of cynical speculation about profit motives, especially since "Cars" turned out to be such a merchandising bonanza that you'd have to assume that Pixar was under sizable corporate pressure to further exploit the "Cars" characters. The dismal reviews may not have a major impact on "Cars 2's" playability around the globe. But the reviews do put a damper on Pixar's hopes to score another best animated feature Oscar, since voters this year have a number of other, higher-quality films to put on their ballots. 

It would be way to early to worry about Pixar having run out of gas. But it just goes to show that when you start making sequels, you risk losing some of the spontaneity and storytelling invention that have been part and parcel of Pixar's success. Lasseter and Co. managed to improve on the original "Toy Story" with its sequels, but this time they seem to have hit a creative wall. And as we all know, when you hit a wall on the Grand Prix circuit, the results are not pretty.


Merchandise sales drive Pixar's 'Cars' franchise

For John Lasseter, 'Cars 2' is a gearhead's dream

Critical Mass: With 'Cars 2', the critics' love affair with Pixar hits a rocky patch

--Patrick Goldstein   

Photo: Finn McMissile, left, with Mater, in a scene from the Pixar film "Cars 2."  Credit: Disney/Pixar