Cars 2 (United States, 2011)

June 24, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cars 2 Poster

Seen in Disney 3-D.

It was bound to happen: a dud for Pixar. Making a sequel to 2006's Cars was always something of a head-scratcher. The original movie, while possessing a certain charm, was among the studio's least inspired efforts and the death of Paul Newman (Cars was his final big-screen role) left a hole at the emotional center (the student/mentor relationship between Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen and Newman's Doc Hudson). The development of Cars 2 seems to have been driven as much by merchandising wants as creative needs. After all, it's easier to sell cars than Ed Asner. The Disney/Pixar label assures box office success but, especially in the case of a high profile family film, that has minimal correlation with actual quality. And, although it would be unfair to label Cars 2 as unwatchable, it is surprisingly tedious in parts and not as satisfying as one might expect.

To give the filmmakers credit, at least they try to take Cars 2 in a new direction rather than making it a re-tread of Cars. For this installment, the focus shifts to Mater the tow truck (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) and two new characters, British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Lightning McQueen has a significant role, but this isn't "his" show. In fact, the most important thing he contributes is to illustrate the importance of friendship through his relationship with Mater. Usually, Pixar does an excellent job of representing emotion. In this case, however, it feels forced and the associated "message" is presented with a minimum of elegance (a speech about friends).

Following Cars, Lightning has become a big time champion on the racing circuit and now he is being courted to participate in the World Grand Prix - an event that will take place in three locales (Japan, Italy's Riviera, and England) and pit Lightning against Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), who claims to be the fastest car on Earth. Accompanying Lightning on the journey is Mater, who will act as a member of the pit crew. Cloak-and-dagger stuff is happening behind the scenes, however, as the race appears to be at the center of international criminal activities. Investigating these are Finn, a 007-inspired Aston-Martin and his faithful sidekick, Holley. When they mistakenly identify Mater as an American spy, the stage is set for the rural, rusty truck to save the world and get the girl.

Little about Cars 2 feels fresh, and more fun seems to have been had coming up with character names than developing the story. Even though the narrative broadens the scope to the wide world (in addition to Japan, Italy, and England, there are scenes in Paris and America) and puts the race on the back burner, the movie is more obligatory than inspired. With its frequent nods to James Bond and other spy thrillers, the movie makes sure even the uninitiated will recognize the inspiration. The action scenes, of which there are several, are disappointingly pedestrian, doing little to raise the pulse. The comedy is mostly parody, although it falls considerably short of the over-the-top outrageousness of the Austin Powers series.

Visually, Pixar has not slipped. Whatever the motivation for making Cars 2, the animators did not skimp in their attempts to dazzle. The cars are lovingly rendered and the great cities of the world are represented in all their bright, neon glory. The 3-D is irrelevant, often used with such subtlety as to appear almost 2-D. Pixar veteran director John Lasseter understands how to avoid most of 3-D's common pitfalls, including motion blur and washed-out colors, but the "extra dimension" adds so little to this movie that one has to wonder: why bother?

The major voice actors, excepting Newman, return for this installment, although many (like Bonnie Hunt) have little more than cameos. Owen Wilson's Lightning lacks personality - something that was not a problem in the first film. And, while Michael Caine is suitably suave as the British superspy, one has to ponder whether any of the ex-Bonds (or even the current one) were approached. Imagine Connery as Finn, or Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, or Pierce Brosnan... (Plus, I kept wondering whether the voice was really Caine, or whether it was supplied by Steve Coogan or Rob Brydon, who give a clinic on how to imitate the great actor in The Trip.)

Cars 2 lacks Pixar's normal two-level sophistication, despite attempts to deepen things with a subplot about the folly of relying on fossil fuels. It will probably work for kids, although some of the longer, less exciting stretches could result in restlessness. Adults, on the other hand, may be searching for a mature subtext that never emerges. This is no Toy Story 3. For families in search of generation-crossing entertainment, Cars 2 provides a passable two hours, although its value lies more in providing a bonding opportunity for parents and children than in what's on screen.

Note: Cars 2 is preceded by a Toy Story "quickie" that lacks the usual panache of pre-feature Pixar shorts. At about seven minutes in length, it has little opportunity to do more than re-introduce a host of familiar characters. The benefit - to the extent that there is one - is that the voices are provided by the actors who contributed to the features (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, etc.). Still, when all was said and done, I preferred the brief Toy Story add-on to the full-length Cars 2.

Cars 2 (United States, 2011)

Director: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Cast: (voices) Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt
Screenplay: Ben Queen
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-24
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1