Perhaps this disappointment is my fault for canonizing the folks at Pixar, since they are, after all, in the business of making $100 million blockbusters. Cars was probably my least favorite Pixar film, perhaps because it’s their film aimed most directly at small children, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s perfectly pleasant, just not up to the amazing standards set by Wall-E, Up, Ratatouille and the Toy Story films. But if it didn’t live up to those standards, it wasn’t really trying to. And Cars 2 aims even lower.
Cars sang the praises of slowing down and smelling the roses, as it told the story of a race car that gets stuck in a small town and learns to appreciate a more slow-paced life. Cars 2, on the other hand, ignores all that and goes completely in the other direction to tell a fast-paced spy romp, sacrificing any attempt at thematic depth for gunplay and nifty explosions.
In the film, Lightning McQueen (talked by Owen Wilson) is competing in the prestigious World Grand Prix, a three-race competition that takes place in Japan, Italy and England. The competition is put on by Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), an oil tycoon turned electric car evangelist who wants to show that his new alternative fuel can work as well as gasoline by running a race in which all the cars are using the fuel. McQueen takes his best friend, hillbilly tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) along with him, but is embarrassed by him in front of the other race cars, including his arch-rival, an Italian Formula One car called Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro).
Meanwhile, there is an evil cabal of Gremlins, AMC Pacers and other lemons that want to destroy the race, and McQueen along with it. Mater stumbles into the movie’s spy plot when British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, super cool as ever) and desk jockey turned field agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake him for an American spy.
Visually, the film is as breathtaking as any of the Pixar films. The action is all well staged by director John Lasseter, with the opening sequence aboard an offshore oil rig being particularly exciting, and some of the city scapes are gorgeous, with great attention to detail.
However, the script, by Ben Queen, often feels as though it could use some of that attention. Again, it feels somewhat unfair to give the film demerits for something it doesn’t even seem to strive for, but the film lacks the emotional depth or recognizable human reality found in the other Pixar films. Perhaps that’s fitting, since there aren’t any humans here. But the movie does teach us that you don’t need humans to have toilet humor, as we see Mater get some fluids up his undercarriage in an elaborate Japanese bathroom. It’s nice to know that fart jokes can survive the extinction of the human race.
There is quite a lot of wit on display in the ways the filmmakers adapt the world for the cars (Big Bentley, Towkyo), but just as often there are logic problems that will annoy any audience members over the age of 10. For example, the entire plot of the movie hinges on the fact that Mater eats a huge scoop of wasabi, mistaking it for pistachio ice cream, but the cars use fuel, they don’t eat, so there shouldn’t be any food around at all.
Not being intellectually engaged by the film, I had plenty of time to ponder the potential creepiness of the premise. Where does the soul of a sentient automobile lie? If you replace the engine block of one of these cars, is it the same person? How about the carburetor? The windshield? These cars were obviously designed to carry passengers, which are nowhere to be found. And the cars don’t have arms, so who makes them, anyway? Are there giant groups of enslaved humans somewhere toiling away to manufacture cars? Are there mass graves of humans just outside of the frame? Are these movies stealth sequels to Maximum Overdrive? If these movies were a little more interesting, of course, these questions wouldn’t bother me. I never thought about the horrific implications of the Toy Story movies while I was watching them, for instance.
Perhaps the film’s biggest problem is its choice of focus. The new characters voiced by Caine and Mortimer are probably the best thing about the movie, but their plot drags Mater to the forefront. Mater was surprisingly amusing in the original film, particularly given that any exposure to Larry the Cable Guy usually makes my teeth hurt, but in that movie he was decidedly a supporting character. And a little of his hick schtick goes a long way. Here, though, he’s been promoted to the lead, with McQueen checking in every once in a while and barely aware of the parallel plot going on with Mater. We’re encouraged for the bulk of the film to laugh at his buffoonery, but scolded at the last minute and told that we should accept our friends for who they are.
If you can ignore both logic and the themes of the first film as completely as the filmmakers have, then you should have fun with this movie. Cars 2 may be the worst thing Pixar has ever done, but at its best it is still an exciting, action– adventure that will leave kids enthralled and adults moderately pleased.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.