After 11 straight critical and financially successful films, animation giant Pixar found itself in an unusual position this summer – being raked over the coals by critics unimpressed with their latest offering. The film that inspired the vitriol was Cars 2, the follow-up to the 2006 animated feature about the adventures of Lightning McQueen and his fellow anthropomorphic car friends. That film was a gigantic success for the company, so a sequel seemed inevitable.
What didn’t seem inevitable to director (and Pixar boss) John Lasseter was the reaction the film would inspire. Critics were less than impressed with the feature – citing it as a soulless cash grab designed to sell more Disney merchandise for the House of Mouse. Even more disturbing, some saw it as the first step down a slippery slope for the studio – a sign that after years of making incredible animated features that helped redefine storytelling in the medium, the creativity was fading.
The thing is, while both of those things might be true, Cars 2 still went on to make over $550 million worldwide and received an overall A- rating from viewers. Does critical opinion even really matter in light of that?
In the interim, director Lasseter has been quiet when it comes to talking about Cars 2 – until now. With the film due on DVD and Blu-ray, the filmmaker has finally opened up about the sequel and how he perceives the criticism thrown in Cars 2’s path.
The New York Times recently caught up with the Lasseter for a lengthy chat about the movie (which is currently a frontrunner in the animated feature category for the 2011 Academy Awards), and he seems both proud of the work he and his studio have done, and a little bit saddened by how the film was received in the critical community.
When asked about the insistence that his film was forced into production by Disney in order to sell more merchandise, Lasseter tells the Times, “I don’t know what to say about that. Well, I guess I do. It’s not true. It’s people who don’t know the facts, rushing to judge. I recognize my place in the Walt Disney Company, but my job, my focus, my deepest desire is to entertain people by making great movies, and we did that with Cars 2. ”
Meanwhile, Pixar as a whole finds itself in a state of transition. After becoming a part of the Disney giant, it’s hard for the once outsider studio to maintain its underdog appeal – a factor that seems to be part of the concern for critics. The loss of Steve Jobs, who served as a confidante to Lasseter, will only give rise to new concerns.
Plus, there’s what we like to call the “Tarantino Factor” at work here – Pixar is now so big and so respected that it’s easy to imagine executives being afraid to tell Lasseter when something doesn’t quite work – after all, when you’ve had 11 straight hits, it’s clear you’re doing something right.
Lasseter bristles at this assertion. “This is not an executive-led studio. We are honest with each other and we push each other. No amount of great animation is going to save a bad story. That’s why we go so far to make it right.”
Instead of looking for random signs of Pixar’s doom and countless conspiracy theories, perhaps the reason Cars 2 didn’t resonate with critics is much more mundane – the production cycle was a difficult one. The development cycle at Pixar is always challenging, as the creative folks spend a lot of time fighting to find the best story and art for each feature. Compounding that was the abrupt departure of director Brad Lewis – a move that forced Lasseter to assume directorial duties. On top of that, Lasseter lost his father and broke his arm during the film’s production – all things that could have had an impact on the finished product.
For his part, Lasseter isn’t making excuses – and it’s clear he doesn’t give too much weight to what the film’s detractors are saying. “I typically don’t read the reviews. I make movies for that little boy who loves the characters so much that he wants to pack his clothes in a Lightning McQueen suitcase.”
“I reached deep into myself and saw what this film was about, and I think it’s clear that audiences have responded. It’s is a very, very special film to me.”