The price of a soul has been given many treatments since the original Germanic legend of Faust. Perhaps the pinnacle of human happiness, as Goethe wrote. Perhaps a donut, a la Homer Simpson. A couple of recent reminders of these deals with the not so ideal have popped up over the last couple of weeks: the anniversary of The Decision, LeBron James’ announcement to the world of the location of his talent-toting, and the release of “Cars 2,” Pixar’s latest film.
First, as a Clevelander, I would be remiss to not be thinking about the very public rebuke of the Cavaliers. LeBron was the Cleveland sports Moses, the man who would lead the championship-starved city to the Promised Land. But, he left for Miami and we all got a bit up-in-arms. Just a bit.
With The Decision, he made a media event of selling himself out, not for his NBA paycheck, but for an easy route to a championship and the foundation for a worldwide brand in the vein of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. And LeBrand (sorry, can’t resist) tore everything down for his hubris. And didn’t win…at least yet.
John Lasseter and Pixar also had carefully built a lot of respect and goodwill with all of their films. Being mentioned in the bottom of the Pixar milk jug still was cream to everyone else. Then came “Cars 2.”
Mind you, the movie is not a bad film. If you had never seen a Pixar film, you probably would walk away from it saying it is a solid effort, with stunning visuals and clever gags. You might think there is no way that it earns only a 35% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. But then you might look into the rest of Pixar’s library and wonder what the hell happened.
The next chart will probably give you some insight as to why the hell it happened.
Pixar ticket sales from boxofficemojo.com
“Cars” merchandise sales worldwide through 2010 were estimated by the LA Times at $10 billion, 51% more than the aggregate worldwide gross of all 11 Pixar movies prior to “Cars 2.” That’s a lot of gas at Flo’s V-8 Café, even by today’s oil prices. And so lays the crux of why it has been relatively savaged by critics: everyone believed Pixar’s raison d’etre was to make exceptional movies--not money.
While I would never begrudge a business the right to make money (why else do businesses exist?), I do think Pixar has flim-flammed us a bit in this case. After all, the irony of the matter is that the first “Cars” movie preaches that fame and money aren’t as important as making connections with your fellow cars. It is no accident that the catalyst for Lightning McQueen getting lost is McQueen’s own merchandise falling and opening the rear door to his driver Mack’s trailer. That event alone renders the creation of this movie all the more poignant and disappointing.
Need further evidence of Lasseter (co-director of both movies and head of Pixar) ignoring his own advice? Both Paul Newman and George Carlin passed away in the interim between the movies, yet only Newman was given the “in memoriam” treatment. Don’t get me wrong, Newman was as big as stars get, and the fact that he consulted with Lasseter regarding the racing sequences adds a little more weight to their relationship than Carlin’s. But Carlin was deserving of some in-movie mention at the very least, and they just ignored him while dedicating an entire scene to Newman’s character, Doc Hudson. Instead, Carlin was merely replaced because Fillmore has a small but important role in the movie and needs to be included.
Ultimately, “Cars 2” is an unadulterated cash-grab. Critics all thought that Pixar was above that or at the very least was capable of surprising us with a great movie while raking in the dough. When they found that they were wrong, they penalized Pixar with heavy-handed reviews. Their discovery is what disappoints us about Pixar, LeBron James, and the pre-Radiator Springs Lightning McQueens of the world. When we uncover their Faustian deals for fortune and glory, we all feel like we lost the Big Race.