Cars 2: a few thoughts

August 16, 2011

I took my six year old to the cinema last weekend to watch Cars 2, and it has to be said I was left a little concerned and less than impressed. Be aware, there will be spoilers in this post…

One of the points is about the desire of so many film studios to create films in 3D. Whether this is a good thing or not is open to debate; I tend to side with those that argue that it isn’t something that particularly adds to a film and indeed can even diminish a film. Nevertheless, even watching in 2D, the 3D is a distraction: you tend to pick up on scenes that have clearly been put together to say, “Look! You can see the widget/monster/rock coming straight out of the screen towards you! Isn’t this 3D amazing, eh – well worth those extra couple of quid a ticket!” I’ve noticed this on a few films – the excellent Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs and How to train your Dragon for example – and although the kids don’t really notice it, I do.

I’m not interested in paying the premium: but even so, I can’t escape the 3D effect. The retro-fitting of films – the trailer for The Lion King in 3D was running with Cars 2 – makes this even more annoying: one wonders how contrived some of the 3D scenes will look, in order to show off the fact that it’s there. The fact that 3D seems so beloved by the film studios in part as an anti-piracy and revenue-generating measure and much less for the new creative opportunities doesn’t help my mood.

The critics have in some cases been very sniffy about the first Cars film, but I wouldn’t agree with them. It isn’t Pixar’s greatest or most original, but it’s a simple story told well, with verve and humour, and I’m sure ours wasn’t the only household with children where watching the DVD seemed to be a weekly – if not more frequent – event. It says a lot for the film that even with such heavy rotation, I still don’t mind it being on. However, as a story it was pretty self-contained: any sequel would to an extent be rather contrived.

So it proved. The formula for such films seems to be “Let’s take the characters from the first story and take them out on the road, out of their familiar surroundings, and let hilarious consequences ensue!”

As a result the main focus seems not on McQueen, but on the main comic relief in the first film, Mater; and in order to maximise the fish out of water approach, Mater turns into a reluctant spy due to mistaken identity. The spy plot he is embroiled in is confusing, and there seemed to be almost no clue to indicate how things will be resolved, or who the evil mastermind is. And here is one of the problems with the film: it is too complicated for its target audience, the young kids still watching the first film.

In fact, the way the spy plot is handled is the cause of some of my disquiet. At points the film seems to want to be a James Bond film – there are for example clear references to Octopussy – while at times it seems to want to reference Austin Powers – witness the female assistant who is called Miss Shiftwell. All of these are referencing movies for adults; and when the action includes the crushed remains of a spy car being displayed, another spy being (strongly implied at least) blown up, others in extreme danger of being crushed by a mechanical device and a major character close to being annihilated by a bomb connected up to him, you can’t help but wonder if this is really suitable family viewing. My six year old coped with it, but it’s not hard to imagine sensitive children – especially younger ones – getting upset by it.

The complexity of the plot, the surprising amount of violence, the turning of the comic relief character into the main focus – these changes in my opinion take this film too far away from its original core audience. It’s by no means a bad film – but given the high standard Pixar have set themselves, this is a big let-down.


Life Imitating Art: the Organised Riot

August 9, 2011

I have been watching the events unfolding in London – and now spreading elsewhere – with some bemusement and maybe some alarm, but one thing that seems to be emerging is the fact that modern technology seems to be playing a part in what’s going on with mobile phones, social media and at one point Blackberry Messenger being quoted as being used to organise the unrest.

The life imitating art part comes from the American Science Fiction writer Larry Niven, and in particular a story called Flash Crowd. In it, an instant matter transfer device allows people to show up very quickly at a riot site, and it soon develops into a semi-organised event with looting galore – another short story, The last days of the permanent floating riot club, deals with how this had developed and in the fictional world was dealt with.

While this isn’t quite the same, it is a case of technology being used to allow word to spread and forces to be coordinated, and it seems that is making things hard for the authorities. Flash Mobs have been used for humourous and artistic purposes – now, are we seeing them turn more sinister?

Whatever the reasons that have sparked the riots off – and some of the factors seem to be depressingly familiar to those of the 1980s – it seems that there were a lot of people ready and willing to take advantage once the blue touchpaper was lit. Even rioters, it seems, are able to take advantage of technology.