Cars 2 (2011) / Animation-Action
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences (I'd rate it PG for action violence)
Running time: 106 min.
Cast (voices): Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brett Musberger, Joe Mantegna, Bonnie Hunt, Franco Nero, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Garlin, Tony Shalhoub, Jason Isaacs, Jenifer Lewis, Vanessa Redgrave, Bruce Campbell, Cheech Marin, Jeff Gordon, Paul Dooley, Richard Kind, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger
Director: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Screenplay: Ben Queen
Review published July 11, 2011
Pixar's first big cinematic misstep proves that, when you remove the emotion and imagination from the heart of their films, what you have left is a mechanical, commercial experience built on raking in dollars on a known franchise. From a technical side, it's as solid as any. The computer graphics are still top notch, as is the voice work, sound effects, and cuteness factor, but once it's all over, there's not much to show for it in terms of interesting ideas or thoughtful feelings you typically expect from John Lasseter (A Bug's Life, Cars) and company. In a very un-Pixar-like entry, the plot is convoluted, the laughs few, and the imagination left nearly entirely in new car designs.
This globe-hopping sequel. Lightning McQueen (Wilson, Midnight in Paris), the main character of the first Cars, is relegated to a supporting role. Called to the forefront is the predecessor's comic relief character, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, Witless Protection), the rusty and dimwitted tow truck. In this plot, a formidable billionaire entrepreneur named Sir Miles Axlerod (Izzard, Prince Caspian) promotes a three-race tournament, the first World Grand Prix, between Lightning and egotistical Italian Formula One car rival, Francesco Bernoulli (Transformers 2), mostly to promote the use of his new 'green' fuel alternative, Allinol. Meanwhile, Mater gets mistaken for a super spy when he mixes with British secret agents Finn McMissile (Caine, The Dark Knight) and his cohort Holly Shiftwell (Mortimer, Shutter Island), who are on the case of a plot to sabotage the world's high profile cars in an effort to undermine the use of this alternative fuel.
When you cut down Cars as to why it worked, it wasn't for the technical stuff, or the predictable plot, but because we enjoyed the characters the depiction of small town America represented by Radiator Springs, and some clever sight gags and jokey allusions to the world of automobiles themselves. This sequel does give us the goods that we appreciate, but don't care about as much, i.e., the tech and plot, but removes those things which gave its predecessor its entertainment value. The sidekick's role is amplified without any new nuance to the personality to sustain it, while the small town is traded for the glitz and glamour of major world cities like Tokyo and London. The puns and visual humor are benign but largely unmemorable (Mater discovers a bidet -- a gag adults have seen in every film featuring one, while kids are too young to even know what one is) while every new character introduced add little enjoyment factor, and predominantly exist to "franchise out" the series with new toys and the possibility of spinoff media like video games and cartoons.
Perhaps if the film merely followed the exploits of Lightning McQueen and his rivalry with Bernoulli, while filling in the gaps with more camaraderie and character development of its Radiator Springs characters, Cars 2 would have been a worthy continuation of the first, even if the action were transplanted to various locales around the world. Where the film errs is in introducing the action spy flick elements, which is too prevalent to even call a subplot, as it gets the most amount of screen time. There are no laughs (unless you're giddy for automotive puns), no genuine thrills, too much going on of relative unimportance to the audience, and a plethora of guns and ammo going off willy-nilly (the MPAA, asleep at the wheel when it comes to depictions of cartoon violence, bestowed a generous G rating). Plus, as Cars showed, Mater is perfectly fine for comic relief, but he is grating when given such a large role, with Pixar proving that sometimes there's such a concept as too much of a good thing.
Cars is a good film, though it had been arguably the worst of the Pixar lot. Cars 2 can now claim that prize, inarguably. It's still cute while it plays, and gorgeously rendered with excellent voice work. But there's just no getting around the overlong, uninspiring climax, and the fact that it's thoroughly lacking the fond memories of every Pixar release prior. Time to get this series off the road, because this vehicle shows that the tank is definitely on 'E'.
©2011 Vince Leo