Review: Cars 2

jason stives reviews the latest Pixar film …

Plot: When world-class racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is issued a challenge by an Italian to compete in the first World Grand Prix, it’s off to international locales for some world class racing. Meanwhile, his lovable tow truck friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) finds himself embroiled in international espionage and a plot by disgraced low level cars to destroy an alternative fuel to gasoline.

In the tradition of their previous releases, Pixar prefaces its latest venture, Cars 2, with another wonderful animated short, this time featuring the cast of Toy Story 3. After laughing loudly for seven minutes at this amusing short, I started to worry if this would be the most I would laugh during my time in the theater. No doubt Pixar films are always a lot of fun but with already negative reviews a foot and being the sequel to a film many felt didn’t require one, would Cars 2 live up to the task of following the studio’s biggest release to date? In many ways, I think that is what placing this short before the film was intended to do but thankfully Cars 2 is a lot of fun even if it’s not of the best quality.

Let me preface my review by saying Cars 2 is NOT a bad movie. In fact, I’m of the belief that Pixar can do no wrong as storytellers. There is a child-like wonderment that connects these films’ creators and the audience they reach for and each film always comes out with a refreshing touch of imagination and fantasy. That being said I was never a big fan of the first Cars, mainly because the car-centric world with all its puns was too much for me and obviously not intended for my liking. Cars 2, however, lacks the one thing that its predecessor did have and that’s a heartfelt story. The first Cars dealt so heavily with tradition and home but this time around the themes of friendship and identity are sparse at best, masked by everything else in the film.

What is interesting about this picture is the shift in tone and pace. Instead of going back to the slow paced world of Radiator Springs, Pixar has opted instead to retain just Lightning McQueen and Mater as the main focuses and practically rebooted the story as a high octane spy flick. But in doing so and laying the ground works for a lot of bells and whistles, the heart of the story is lost in favor of being just another sequel.

 

While the friendship between McQueen and Mater is a big topic in the film, there isn’t much of it to go around as the film is solely about Mater, much like how the first film focused on Lightning McQueen. I was never a big fan of Mater, mainly because of my dislike of Larry The Cable Guy, but this time around Mater is given a lot to work with and his struggle with others viewing him as an idiotic tow truck gives the character a good push to be memorable. Larry The Cable Guy, instead of making Mater just a character for background laughter, opts to make the buffoonish tow truck sympathetic and greatly lovable. His unfortunate mishap into the world of British espionage is funny and it’s the little cute touches that make Mater more memorable now than before, including a hilarious scene where Mater leaves a goodbye letter to McQueen but adding a PS apologizing for ordering a pay per view in their room not knowing you have to pay for it. It’s the small minded things like that that make Mater so touching making him one of the best Disney/Pixar characters in recent memory.

While much of the original cast returns in more reduced side roles, some things unfortunately didn’t make it back. In a touching dose of reality in the colorful car world, John Lasseter and company make note of the absence of Doc Hudson as an off-screen passing (Paul Newman, who voiced Doc in the original, died in 2008). However, instead of giving the same treatment for the minor character of the VW hippie bus Fillmore (who was voiced by the late George Carlin), he is recast but most young fans will probably not notice the difference.

 

New to the cast are two daring secret agent cars, Finn McMissile (voiced with slick British swagger by the great Michael Caine) and rookie hot shot spy car Holly Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer). These two, McMissile in particular, bring the cool espionage action to the screen and really play up things very well for the adults in the audience. Beyond the new and returning voice work, the film looks wonderful, once again proving that Pixar Animation is always continuously evolving and making things more lustrous and sophisticated. The various exotic locales used in the World Grand Prix of the story are greatly meticulous and at times almost life like. The action is fast paced and put together well with big explosions and cars whipping around streets at a cartoonish but feverish pace.

The biggest hurdle that Cars 2 has outside of being a sequel is the aforementioned car centric mentality. While I will undoubtedly agree that this film is more kid friendly than other Pixar films, parents are still seeing this none the less and jokes like having cities and landmarks dubbed under car terms like “Towkyo” and “Big Bently,” are groaners at best. The story is also a bit all over the place trying to juggle the mature themes that always encompass a Pixar flick as well as provide a fun pop corn film for the varying demographics watching it. It’s sluggish at times, which is something I think the first film always suffered from. When the film would slow down from the action it would slow down hard and I did catch myself once nodding off before getting back full blast into the film.

These flaws I don’t believe are the fault of anyone in particular and Cars 2 is faced with the same obstacle its predecessor had and that’s being preceded by a much touted film. As the first Cars followed the commercial and critical hit The Incredibles, Cars 2 is coming out the summer following the emotional juggernaut that was Toy Story 3, but that is not Pixar’s fault because we are dealing with two different tones. As great as films like Toy Story 3, Up, and Wall-E are for being proven as real films with real mature themes, cartoons at the heart of them are meant to be pure fun. Part of the fun of watching Cars 2 is not having that same emotional investment and with some very funny scenes as well as a plethora of explosions and car chases, Cars 2 may not be one of the best Pixar films to date but it’s certainly a highly enjoyable pop corn flick that easily entertains in some very high concept degrees.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Good, not Great)