Cars 2 feels like an exercise in excess and an apology from Pixar to their Disney friends. “Dear Disney, sorry we made a half-silent movie about a robot, and we’re very sorry we made a movie about an old man and a fat kid who fly in a house-balloon. I know you love toy sales, and those movies weren’t exactly selling tons of dolls. So, to make it up for you, here’s Cars 2. It’s like Cars, but with even MORE toy potential!”
This time, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has just won the Piston Cup again, and now he’s ready to kick up his wheels, relax with girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and spend his lazy days with his best pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).
Unfortunately, after a very-public calling-out from hotshot Formula One car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) and a challenge to enter the World Grand Prix thrown by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), Lightning and company are off to travel the world, and race against the best race car puns Pixar has to offer.
This allows the cars to explore the world and get into lots of bright, colorful (at least in 2D) racing action, as well as to allow the writing team of Ben Queen (screenwriter), John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, and Dan Fogelman (story) to run wild with all manner of possible stereotypes for both car names and settings for races.
Meanwhile, while Lightning is off racing, Mater gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity in Japan, and gets involved with a group of secret agents, including Finn McMissile (Michael Caine doing his best impression of himself), Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), and Rod ‘Torque’ Redline (Bruce Campbell), who are trying to stop the nefarious, mysterious scheme of Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) and his gang of Yugos, AMCs, and Soviet-era clunkers.
That’s a fair amount of story to fit in. But, cutting to the chase, Cars 2 is a big let-down. It looks cool, but that’s about all it’s got going for it. All of Pixar’s movies look great, but this one lacks any sort of heart or soul.
That’s not to say that Cars 2 isn’t goofy fun (it has its moments), but when it comes to Pixar? Our standards, perhaps unfairly, are higher than that. Way higher, in fact. The only movie Pixar has made sequels to, Toy Story, is an animation classic and Toy Story 2 and 3 might each be better than the first. Even the original Cars, which is perhaps my least favorite Pixar film since A Bug’s Life, has its charm and has a sweet message at its heart, for both kids and adults. Though it’s a bit weak by Pixar standards, it’s still a great film.
Cars 2 is significantly weaker. It’s incredibly violent (Finn McMissile blows up several hundred cars in the opening scene alone, very nearly Robocop-levels of violence), and there are untold numbers of explosions and beatings and shootings as the various factions of spy cars engage in gun play with one another. That’s right, gun play! This ain’t your mama’s G-rated kiddy picture; it’s Pixar’s version of a Timothy Dalton James Bond movie, in which 007 mows down entire gangs with an assault rifle, mixed with the average “Joe Blow gets mistaken for a spy and caught up in a web of intrigue” (The Tuxedo with Jackie Chan or The Man Who Knew Too Little with Bill Murray, except with Larry the Cable Guy).
Still, as kids’ movies go? There are a whole lot worse. The various cars do learn a lesson (don’t judge a book by its cover and/or be yourself), and I imagine older kids might like it quite a bit for its action. But younger children? It might be too much carnage for them, and the spy-driven plot might be a bit too far over their heads. The G rating isn’t appropriate for this film, if only because so many cars die.
Maybe Pixar is responding to the audience of Cars and aging up the film as the audience grows up, or maybe John Lasseter just wanted to make a spy movie with his favorite Pixar character, Mater. (Seriously, Lasseter is Mater’s biggest fan, since he did Cars, Cars 2, Mater’s Tall Tales, and a couple of Mater-centric shorts.)Cars 2 also has some incredibly preachy moments which are aimed squarely at adults. The whole subplot of Allinol versus gasoline is pretty blatant in its attempt to make the oil industry out to be a collection of bad guys while alternate fuels are clearly good. While this may be entirely true, it’s also a bit too much for the comprehension of most children (and it’s entirely too black-and-white when compared with the reality of alternative fuels, but that’s not a debate for here). The message of Mater’s character arc (be yourself) and the arc of Finn/Lightning (don’t judge a book by its cover/let your friends be themselves and don’t try to change folks who are good people) are more audience-appropriate.
When viewed objectively, Cars 2 is… fine, I guess. But when you compare it to recent Dreamworks offerings, or Pixar’s other movies, it’s a disappointment. It just doesn’t really have an audience it is aiming squarely for. It tries to do too much, or please too many people, and to that end it’s a bit of a noisy mess.
This is one car in dire need of an overhaul.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan has always anthropomorphized cars, but never to this extreme. This is practically fetishizing a well-rounded set of headlights. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.