The Pixar library stands as modern animation’s most impressive by far, partly due to both the studio and Disney’s belief that sequels should only be made with the right artistic reasons in mind, namely a good story. That’s why, to date, we have just “Toy Story 2,” “Toy Story 3” and … “Cars 2” … ?
The original “Cars” has largely been considered the worst of the Pixar movies, in the same way that Pluto might be considered the worst of the nine planets. So why create a sequel? The answer that’s hard to hear is that “Cars” has done incredible merchandising business compared to the other Pixar films. The less cynical answer would be that its director, Pixar head honcho and young boy at heart John Lasseter, loves the “Cars” universe — a lot. “Cars 2” plays out as a fantasy for a 6 to 10-year-old boy, one that cares much more about sheen than story, despite Pixar consistently championing that phrase the other way around.
In fairness, “Cars 2” does everything a sequel should in terms of widening the scope, upping the action and improving the overall visuals. Pixar set the bar for technical mastery in digital animation and every animator and member of the production team meets that standard if not exceeds it. It’s the story under the hood that struggles, choosing fun as its main objective as opposed to heart.
And “Cars 2” has fun by the tankful. Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman’s story takes the “Cars” universe and throws “James Bond” into it, a cocktail most definitely shaken and not stirred. The film introduces British secret agent cars Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) who are trying to find out what the dastardly Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) is up to at the World Grand Prix, a new race sponsored by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), an adventurer who is now promoting his new alternative fuel source.
Meanwhile, Lightning McQueen has been busy racing and winning championships when he finally returns to his old pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in Radiator Springs. It’s a short vacation, however, as Formula 1 race car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) has challenged McQueen to the World Grand Prix. He accepts and brings Mater to Tokyo with him, where our secret agents believe Mater to be an American spy helping them out.
Most surprisingly, Lightning McQueen takes a back seat in to Mater in this film. Agreed that Mater is one of the funnier supporting characters that Pixar has written and in this film he’s equally if not more hilarious, but McQueen’s quest to be the best is completely inconsequential. There’s a moment, as is in just about every film where the message is about friendship, when he spurns Mater and then later tries to make amends, but it happens so early on. Any emotional impact the film could have had is zapped thanks to this and the fact that McQueen has no bearing on the spy plot. There’s also the theme of Mater confronting that people think he’s stupid, but the power of this message never plays itself out.
The real problem with the story of “Cars 2” can ultimately be attributed to the fact that it does not necessitate being told in a world where the characters are all cars and other vehicles. The same story could have been told with human characters and nothing would have changed. The car aspect serves only as the chance to be clever with a number of car-related jokes and gadgetry.
Disappointment will resonate with a lot of Pixar fans, yet the truth is “Cars 2” is such a well- oiled machine that it’s much easier to discuss what the film lacked than its strengths. The action, the wit, the cleverness and the impeccable visuals we’ve come to expect from Pixar make it a first-rate animated film. However, we’ve also come to expect an emotional pull, the feeling of being on the verge of tears for even just a bit. “Cars 2” doesn’t deliver that at all, nor the feeling of artistic purpose. It feels like a studio making the best movie it could with the pieces it already had in place from its financial successful 2006 film.
At the same time, if “Cars 2” brings in enough money that it funds another three years of powerful, intelligent and emotional original films like “Up,” “Toy Story 3” and “WALL*E,” I can deal with that.
Directed by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Written by Ben Queen (screenplay), John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, Dan Fogelman (story)
Starring: (voices) Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro