When “Toy Story” opened in 1995, I was 12 years old and fully entrenched in the, “I’m too cool for cartoons” phase of life. “Toy Story” rocked my world and it was only the tip of the Pixar iceberg. Over the last 15 years, Pixar has put together perhaps the greatest track record of any studio in the industry. They simply haven’t missed. They craft visually stunning, intelligent, and hilarious films that kids love and adults appreciate even more. The real genius, though, is in their ability to take seemingly inhuman characters, such as toys, bugs, and robots, and make them so remarkably human. No matter what type of being the central characters are, Pixar always finds a way to make them and the stories they work within relevant and connectible. I’ve often said that Pixar’s slogan should be, “Making Grown Men Cry Since 1995.” Very rarely can I sit through a Pixar film without tearing up and some of the films, like “Toy Story 3”, manage to bring me to the brink of openly weeping no matter how many times I see them. With that in mind, I guess I can’t fault them too much for the misfire that is “Cars 2.”
“Cars 2” takes us back to Radiator Springs with famous racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) returning home after winning his fourth consecutive Piston Cup. After briefly reuniting with his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), McQueen accepts a challenge to participate in an international race to promote a new form of fuel. There are greater things at stake, however, than a trophy. British spy car Fin McMissile (Michael Caine) has discovered that a syndicate of lemon cars (Gremlins, Pintos, etc.) have conspired to sabotage the race. McMissile and his colleague, Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), mistake Mater for an American spy and soon incorporate him into their plan to counteract that of the lemons. Shenanigans ensue as the trio tries to unravel the lemon’s plot before they are able to get to McQueen.
First of all, there’s really nothing inherently wrong with “Cars 2.” It is a perfectly acceptable children’s movie. The negative press that this film has gotten is based solely on the fact that it is a Pixar film and you expect more from Pixar than quality children’s entertainment. And that’s exactly what it is: quality children’s entertainment. If you have a kid, you’d be thrilled if he/she got attached to “Cars 2” instead of, say, “Alpha and Omega” or “Hoodwinked 2.” But it simply doesn’t come anywhere close to measuring up to the strength of its Pixar brothers.
For one thing, there’s too much Mater. WAY too much Mater. Mater is designed for plucky comic relief not a starring role and his extended screen time gets old pretty quickly. There’s also just not a whole lot to build upon from the previous entry in the franchise. “Ratatouille” is my least favorite Pixar film but I think “Cars” is probably the weakest overall. The characters are the least relatable and the story is the least compelling. Moreover, the real strength of “Cars” is in the personification of Smalltown, USA and the loss of its simplicity. When you take the “Cars” characters away from that setting, they really lose all importance.
The real issue with “Cars 2”, though, is that none of this matters on any sort of emotional level. That’s what I want and have come to expect from Pixar films: strong stories that are allegories or illustrations of bigger issues that bring about genuine connection and elicit emotion. We get none of that in “Cars 2.” Instead, it plays out like a children’s rendition of a James Bond film. Only one scene, a tribute to the great Paul Newman who voiced the Hudson Hornet in the first film, is accessible from an emotional standpoint. Again, there’s nothing wrong with creating a fun kid’s movie but Pixar has always seemed above that. In truth, this is basically Pixar’s version of a straight-to-DVD film that was really only made because it is a passion project of Disney/Pixar chief John Lasseter.
All of that said if you’re a parent, you could do a lot worse than “Cars 2” (“Zookeeper” comes to mind). It is rich visually, has a handful of laughs, and the kids will undoubtedly enjoy it. But if you go in expecting the typical Pixar magic, you will be sorely disappointed.
I’d like to be done with Larry the Cable Guy now,