Fin McMissile (voice by Michael Caine), left, and Mater (voice by Larry… (© Disney, Pixar )
Pixar, arguably Hollywood's most admired movie studio, has made its first lemon as far as the critics are concerned. "Cars 2," director John Lasseter's sequel to his 2006 ode to gearheads, has collected the worst reviews of any of the 12 films in the animation studio's 25-year-history.
"It actually hurts to knock one of [Pixar's] movies — something I've never done before," wrote Indiewire critic Leonard Maltin. "But then, I've never gotten a headache watching any of their previous films."
Maltin isn't alone in his low opinion of the sequel, which follows characters from the original film, race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and tow truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), through a complicated storyline involving auto racing, international espionage and alternative fuels. While Pixar films have historically earned a 90% or better rating on the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes, "Cars 2" is hovering at 34%. At Metacritic, a similar site that ranked last year's Pixar film "Toy Story 3" at 92%, the movie is clocking in at 57%.
"It's just not what we've come to expect from Pixar," said Jerry Beck, editor of the website Cartoon Brew. "It's like the first time Woody Allen disappointed us. We expect something great from him, and when he doesn't deliver, it's like, 'What happened?'"
The disappointment may have been heightened because the movie was directed by Lasseter, a critic's favorite who is chief creative officer at Pixar and its corporate parent, Walt Disney Co.
For many critics, where the studio went wrong was selecting Mater, a sidekick in the previous film, as its star. "The Southern-fried Mater is dumb, excitable and puppy-dog loyal, his idiot-savant automotive expertise grounded in humble, blue-collar simplicity," wrote New York Times critic A.O. Scott, before likening Mater to a reviled character from the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy. "I doubt anyone will protest much, but Pixar has now found its redneck Jar Jar Binks."
Toronto Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey gave the film two stars out of five and accused the filmmakers of cashing in on crass commerciality, something Pixar has always managed to seem to float above. He writes, "Apparently fuelled more by prospective toy sales than any intrinsic narrative purpose, 'Cars 2' varooms right under Pixar's usually high bar. Unlike most Pixar fare, this isn't a movie you can imagine many adults wanting to see without their children in tow."
Of course, not every critic panned "Cars 2." The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert gave the film a rave, as did The Times' Kenneth Turan. "With engaging characters, a plot that ensures energy, and such a wealth of auto references ... 'Cars 2' has a smooth, easy way about it," Turan wrote.
The middling reviews don't seem to have damaged the movie's box office (it took in $68 million from Friday through Sunday, according to an estimate from Disney), but they will likely affect a venue Pixar typically dominates — the Oscars. A Pixar film has won the Academy Award for animated feature the last four years, and "Toy Story 3" and "Up" were nominated for best picture as well.
"It's been hard to beat Pixar in previous years, and nobody questions that," said Beck. "But this is a great year not to be Pixar. If I'm another studio, I actually have a chance."