Cars 2 (Review)

CARS 2
(6/24/11; CGI Animation, Comedy, 3D)
Voices: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, Jason Isaacs, Thomas Kretschmann, Joe Mantegna, Peter Jacobson, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Paul Dooley, John Ratzenberger, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Michael Wallis
SCR: Ben Queen
DIR: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
MPAA: G
1 hour 53 mins

I really, really want to give the creative team at Pixar the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I guess I’m spoiled. The venerable Emeryville-based studio that introduced CG-based animation to the masses, then raised the art of their own storytelling to such a high level that their films started making live action movies look bad by comparison, was bound to deliver a lemon one of these days.

I realize that “lemon” is harsh, but it’s only because the rest of the Pixar filmography has been so rich and soulful, that this loud and cluttered sequel to Cars (2006) fares so poorly. It would be pointless to hold this flick up against the likes of Up (2009), Wall-E (2008), Ratatouille (2007) and the Toy Story trilogy, all films that broke free of their cinematic trappings to become something vastly rewarding.

Even though Cars (2006) is generally regarded as the worst of the Pixar bunch, it had a nice message: slow the heck down. The colorful fast-paced racing world was juxtaposed with the pace of Radiator Springs, a forgotten town lost in time, during the era when things started to speed up. Shiny red race car Lightning McQueen (Wilson) had to learn humility and stillness in order to find his heart and his home.

And wouldn’t you know it, his best friend in the world ended up being the rusty bumpkin tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Not as original as a rat who can cook, but simple and effective. Pixar’s Lasseter, returning to the helmer’s seat for the first time since Cars, wanted to make the sequel as different as possible from the original. Mission accomplished. Cars 2 is so tonally different, it’s hard to imagine it sprang from the same creative well.

Three stories compete for screen time: Lightning McQueen returns after winning four Piston Cups, bound for a summer filled with relaxation. Mater wants to hang out and horse around. Radiator Springs is a little more upbeat, now that Lightning has become its favorite son. But a goofy contrivance forces Lightning to enter the World Grand Prix, a series of three races in Italy, Tokyo and London. Lightning’s nemesis is the foppish, arrogant Italian Formula One racecar Francesco Bernoulli (Turturro).

A spy spoof opens the film like a James Bond adventure. Finn McMissile (Caine) is a British spy (an Aston Martin, no less) on a secret mission. In this chapter, there are double entendres, a groovy 60s adventure score, and enough gadgets to make 007’s Q smile from the great beyond. This is the subplot that Mater crashes into when he is mistaken for a brilliant American spy (he’s neither). Hanging in the balance is his friendship with Lightning, who snaps at him after one too many country blunders.

If that wasn’t enough, the entire film hinges on the subject of alternative fuels and how Big Oil is a bad thing. Okay, fine. Wall-E had some tough things to say about our devolution into gluttonous product hounds and how it could possible destroy the planet one day, but the message never felt as ham-fisted there. Couldn’t a villain just as easily have wanted to take over the world?

The part of me that understands show business understands that Cars 2 makes perfect financial sense. Disney (who bought Pixar in 2006) makes more money off Cars merchandise than the films will ever generate. Stoking the retail environment with a fresh movie is smart. But consider that Toy Story 3 had a tougher road: it was the third film in a series, released 11 years after the previous one. What could that film have possibly said? In short, it was a beautiful triste on the death of childhood.

No such messages here, except its good to accept your friends unconditionally. Oh, and that shiny cars are really cool. To be completely fair, Cars 2 looks amazing and is filled with stunning 3D imagery. There are funny jokes throughout and many of the action sequences are jaw-droppingly executed. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Pixar movie without John Ratzenberger somewhere. The death of Paul Newman (who played stoic mentor Doc Hudson) is acknowledged in a classy way but the recasting of George Carlin’s hippy, dippy Fillmore isn’t even close. Would it have killed them to have added “in memory of” cards at the end?

Although many have complained that Mater’s hick humor gets old fast, I didn’t mind that at all. The picturesque locales are photo-realistic, but it does lead one to the question: how did all these places get built if there are no humans? For some reason, I can accept a small town with car-sized hotel rooms but seeing the Eiffel Tower and human accoutrement like martini glasses, tactile food and toilets just takes me out of the movie.

One nice touch: when the action reaches Paris, we get two shots of Gaston’s, the restaurant featured in Ratatouille. And in considering the charms and the deficits of Cars 2, I found myself led back to the prescient words of Ratatouille’s insufferable critic Anton Ego: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

Anton Ego is right. But to argue against one of Ego’s points, it’s not fun to write the following: Cars 2 is the first Pixar movie that feels slapped together. The story pieces don’t fit, the message is off kilter, and the soul is missing. (Disney/Pixar)

— DENNIS WILLIS

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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