It’s only fair, I suppose, that if we run articles trumpeting the fact that other Pixar movies have achieved some form of massively positive consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, that when the company finally releases one that falls far short of the same margin, it would be worth noting. So this weekend will stand as a milestone in the history of Pixar, as Cars 2 opens to the first generally negative consensus opinion in the company’s experience.
That isn’t to say that the film will be a flop. Far from it, in fact. It isn’t tracking through the roof, but Cars 2 will perform well enough, even if it doesn’t hit the box-office highs of other Pixar films. This is primarily a critical failure. But while there is that oft-discussed gulf between critical and public opinion, some critical failures do suggest that producers really misjudged what audiences want. Cars characters have moved ten billion bucks worth of merchandise in the past five years, which sure suggests there is an audience for a sequel. I’m eager to see how most audiences respond to the film, then.
I certainly take no joy in noting this, and curiously enough I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else reveling in the general distaste for Cars 2, either. The prevailing opinion seems to be that Pixar had to swing and miss sometime. That they did so with the film that is obviously the studio’s most commercial effort is balanced by the fact that Pixar co-founder and Cars 2 director John Lasseter very evidently approached the film with no cynicism at all. (Or, I’ll say, that I am willing to believe him when he talks about the film, which he does with a great deal of investment and passion.)
In the long term, there will be time to muse on just what happened. Is the movie really too commercial an effort? Did Pixar let it get out of balance? Was John Lasseter simply overburdened? As he recently told Vulture,
I’m the chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Disney Toon Studios, and I’m the principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, where I go over there and help create rides and attractions and shows. Each one of those is a full-time job, and then on top of that I’m directing a movie, which is more than a full-time job.
And then what will the reception of Cars 2 do to the mindset at Pixar, if anything? The company is well-known for adjusting to material that doesn’t work, famously scrapping versions of films even when they’re pretty far along (such as the pre-Brad Bird version of Ratatouille) and working at a story until they get it right. The decision to make sequels for Cars and Monsters, Inc. has met with criticism and resistance, and even Pixar seems to be aware that people want the company to make original films rather than sequels. Just see the marketing ramp-up for Brave, a slightly darker-than-usual Pixar film, which most audiences will discover for the first time when a teaser runs in front of Cars 2. Will the rotten rating of this weeks opening push the balance back towards films like Brave?
(For the record, the Metacritic rating for Cars 2 is currently at 59. Slightly better than Rotten Tomatoes, which polls many more reviews. But still not good.)