Cars has been a major presence in my house for quite some time. For a while it felt like the DVD was on auto-play on my TV and I can’t go five feet without stepping on a Cars toy. Ever since the Bean could sit up by himself, he was obsessed with wheels. So it was only natural that Cars became one of the first (and for a while the only) thing he would watch. Of course this led him towards the merchandise.
Clearly the Bean is not alone. Millions of kids have opened up their hearts to Lightning McQueen and Mater, which means that millions of parents have opened up their wallets. Since it’s release in 2006, Cars has earned $10 billion dollars in merchandise. Mattel has made over 600 different die cast cars. Disney/Pixar has managed to keep the Cars engine running by producing a series of shorts—each featuring Mater in a different profession like a fireman, a wrestler, a drift racer… While well produced these shorts were clearly all about selling more stuff, which is why on the shelf of your local toy merchant you’ll see toys of Mater as a fireman, a wrestler, a drift racer…
The original Cars gets kind of a bad rap, which I think is unfair. Technically, it’s a jaw-droppingly gorgeous movie but the story is simple. Let’s face it, the plot is liberally borrowed from the mid-level Michael J. Fox cable staple Doc Hollywood. Maybe that’s why it’s such an easy target. Or maybe it’s because it lacks the pathos of the Toy Story movies or Nemo. The movie is not without it’s flaws. It’s a bit self-indulgent and probably 15 minutes too long, but it’s an incredibly entertaining movie with sharp jokes and fully realized characters. While some think it’s one of Pixar’s lesser efforts, even the worst Pixar movie is miles ahead of most films.
Pixar has gotten a lot of credit lately for bringing heavy emotion to their movies. They do it very effectively. Want to make me cry? Show me the Sarah McLaughlan song from Toy Story 2, the first 10 minutes of UP and pretty much the entire third act of Toy Story 3. While those movies are stunning works of storytelling, my kids hate them. My son, however, loves Cars. Cars is pure accessible entertainment without anything scary or heart-wrenching. It’s a safe-haven for us parents and if you’re the parent of a Cars kid, it’s like crack to them.
Which brings us to Cars 2—the inevitable sequel from the Pixar hit factory, which hits theaters today. And according to the critics, the road ahead looks bumpy. Not only is the movie getting some of the worst reviews in Pixar’s history, it’s getting horrible reviews period. At the time of writing this it only had a 32% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Mr. Popper’s Penguins had 46%. )
As somebody who really likes Cars and the father of somebody who loves Cars, I feel strangely defensive about the movie even though I haven’t yet seen it. I first rolled my eyes like a spoiled fanboy when I first heard they were making Cars 2. Of course they were. But when the trailers began to roll out and I saw the kind of movie they were making, I became more interested.
Cars 2 is an old fashioned spy movie. The only connection is has to the original is its characters. Cars 2 could have done an easy lap around the same track when it came to the sequel—especially in this risk-adverse time of Hollywood seems suck in. So I greatly respect Pixar’s choice to try something different.
But let’s make no bones about it, Cars 2 is a toy delivery system. Look at the trailer and see how many new characters were created. Notice how many times Mater changes costumes. My son was quick to point out that even Lightening McQueen has a slightly different paint job. Add up all the merchandise and it’s easy to see how Cars 2 could earn well over $2 billion this year alone.
It’s the first time the well-respected Pixar has made such an obvious money grab. And maybe that’s why there’s such animosity towards Cars 2. It seems like a movie born out of commerce rather than passion, which so far has been antithetical to everything Pixar has stood for.
None of this matters to my son though. For weeks now I’ve been stoking the fires of his excitement, showing him trailers and clips that have been posted online. He’s ready for another Cars adventure. And truthfully, after watching the first over and over again, so am I. Even if it means I'll be shelling out some bucks for new toys.