John Lasseter Says 'Cars 2' Not About Selling Toys By Making Comparison To Lightning McQueen Luggage

by Drew Taylor
October 18, 2011 9:20 AM
8 Comments
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"Cars 2" was misery. Not only was it a pretty lousy movie, but it showed that Pixar, a studio that has had a nearly peerless streak of hit movies that were smart, entertaining and deeply thoughtful, was creatively fallible. At the time of its release, a handful of critics got behind the film but most found it to be loud, excessive, and driven only by the massive merchandising opportunities (since "Cars"-related junk brings in billions of dollars for the Walt Disney Company annually).

The New York Times (via Hollywood Reporter) sat down with "Cars 2" director (and Disney creative chief) John Lasseter for the film's Blu-ray and DVD debut on November 1st and talked about the critical slings and arrows the film received. The filmmaker took the opportunity to defend the film against accusations that it was a corporately encouraged move… but in the clumsiest way imaginable.

First, it's worth noting that Lasseter immediately shied away from any discussion of what the Times describes as "the studio’s shortage of directors who are women and female protagonists in its films" and what has handily been described online as "Pixar's glass ceiling" (meaning there really is something to it). But he did vehemently deny that "Cars 2" was produced solely for its merchandising importance to the company (keep in mind that the "Cars" franchise is also the lynchpin in a multi-billion dollar renovation of the Disney California Adventure theme park, scheduled to open next summer).

“I don’t know what to say about that,” Lasseter told the Times. “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.’ ”

The Times points out how hectic Lasseter's schedule is, overseeing various operations at the Disney studio while also running Pixar (which has at least a half dozen films currently in development, none directed by Lasseter), leading to speculation that he wasn't focused enough on the film and that it slid through without objection from the Pixar staff.

“This is not an executive-led studio," he contended. “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.” He then both stressed the film's importance while downplaying any kind of corporate responsibility: “When a lot of money is at stake, as there is with these films, there is the tendency to try something you know you can land. We simply don’t do that.”

If anyone can even explain the story of "Cars 2" to us (which involved a James Bond-ish spy plot and a commentary on alternative fuels, among other things), we'll happily buy you a copy of the movie on Blu-ray. Later he said: "I reached deep into myself and saw what this film was about." (Again: what is it about?) He continued, "I think it’s clear that audiences have responded. It’s is a very, very special film to me."

Lasseter also doesn't acknowledge the rockiness of the film's production, with the original director Brad Lewis not only asked to step down (Lasseter was his replacement) but to leave the company altogether (which is also what happened to Brenda Chapman, who started out directing next summer's "Brave" before getting the boot).

But his best defense is when discounting the scathing critical response to the film: “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.”

So it's not about the Lightning McQueen suitcases, it's about the little boy who carries around a Lightning McQueen suitcase. Oh. Now everything's crystal clear.

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More: Films, Animated Films, Cars 2

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8 Comments

  • Jay | October 28, 2011 9:50 AMReply

    Let's be honest even Walt Disney made movies that weren't exactly critically acclaimed or box office hits. Although after having met John in person he does have this "Midas touch" arrogance about him that causes me to enjoy when he fails. Pixar still has a winning streak 9 out of 10 is a great record! It's still an A is it not?

  • NineDarter | October 19, 2011 6:52 AMReply

    poor guy. He makes a film targeted at kids than adults (though definitely not unwatchable for adults, I saw it with my younger brother and really enjoyed it) and he gets all this abuse. Cars 2 was no where near as bad as it is being made out


    and the writer of this article is a douche. Nice way to twist someone's word in order to create "wittiness". Not

  • Matt | October 19, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    I was against Car2 since the get-go.

    But when I finally saw it, I kinda liked it.
    I think it's fun and entertaining.

  • Marko | October 18, 2011 12:21 PMReply

    Well aren't the Toy Story movies essentially about the positive impact that a piece of merchandise can have on a kid's life?

  • Nolan | October 18, 2011 12:03 PMReply

    The merchandising aspect of these films is unavoidable. Pixar makes films that, for the most part, appeal to a young audience as well as an adult one. There is money to be made in such films outside of ticket sales. "Cars" is treated the most harshly because it is the most visible from a merchandise standpoint, but also because the two films represent a lapse in creativity that is atypical of Pixar.

    Personally, I don't particularly care for "Monsters Inc." or "Finding Nemo." But the thing is, whether or not I love those films, I still understand that they represent a higher level of filmmaker and storytelling than "Cars," merchandise aside.

  • M.P.S. | October 18, 2011 11:47 AMReply

    That headline literally made me laugh. The kind of glib creative puritanism you're trafficking in here is just adding another tireless voice to the Pixar backlash - the critics who overhyped and exaggerated their successes and who haven't wasted a moment trying to kick them for Cars 2.

    Let's be very clear: ALL of the Pixar films have been greenlighted because they stood to make incredible merchandising revenue for Disney. The impetuses behind Toy Story 2 and 3 - films that Playlist members love or at least respect, I'm sure - are well-documented as being predominantly financial and not originating from the Pixar creative braintrust. That Lasseter and his team were able to turn them into generally good or excellent movies is a tribute to their creative talents. Cars 2 isn't the first Pixar movie made to be a merchandising vehicle - it's (arguably) the first one where the filmmakers were unable to layer and deepen the narrative in a way that made it both a huge financial success and a piece of well-crafted storytelling.

    Also, that last quote is actually quite clear. Lasseter's point is that, for him, as a director, the kind of inspiration and attachment that kids feel when watching these movies is what he's aiming to achieve. And yes, merchandising ties into that, something that I imagine is quite clear to you from when you were a child (or, you know, from writing about the entertainment business). Lasseter likely thought he could make Cars 2 a great movie on top of being a mammoth financial success for the company he heads, as he and his team did for their previous sequels. This time he failed. End of story. Doesn't make quite a laughably glib headline.

  • starway2001 | October 18, 2011 11:18 AMReply

    I agree with Nolan's comments. I think the hyperbole meeter online and in the press has gone off the charts.

    It's intellectually lazy and "fashionable" to pounce on Cars 2 and Lasseter right now. While I admit Cars 2 isn't Pixar's best, it's certainly not the terrible pox that everyone so breathlessly complains about. And it's not really complaining as much as it's revelatory excitement about getting to finally write a hit piece on Pixar.

    A friendly reminder that Pixar's worst is often better than everyone's best.

    The "glass ceiling" is an altogether a different story and worthy of genuine discussion.

  • Nolan | October 18, 2011 10:34 AMReply

    I always take issue with the idea that "Cars 2" somehow represented an unprecedented creative failing on Pixar's part. Am I the only person who sat through the first one?

    I mean, it's fair to say that the "Cars" franchise represents an otherwise unprecedented creative failing, but the second one shouldn't shoulder all of the blame.

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