Cars 2

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 06/25/11 03:59:44

"In the never-ending battle between art and commerce, commerce wins."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Pixar Animation Studios, once, long ago, struck a unique balance between art and commerce, but that balance disappeared, perhaps permanently, when Disney Pictures, Pixar’s longtime distributor, purchased the animation studio outright. The drive to maximize profits, typical of any corporation, unsurprisingly led to a shift in priorities to wring revenue from preexisting properties (i.e., sequels), chief among them a sequel to Pixar’s least loved (by critics and discerning moviegoers) animated film, "Cars." Since "Cars" hit movie theaters and, later, DVD/Blu-Ray, it’s amassed close to $8 billion in merchandizing alone. Whatever its faults (and it has many), "Cars 2" will do nothing to negatively impact merchandizing returns (the opposite’s most likely true).

Cars 2 opens not with Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), the first film’s hero-protagonist and a champion racing car, or even his best friend, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), his ever-loyal best friend, redneck, and rusting tow truck, or even their mutual friends in Radiator Springs, McQueen’s adopted home, but in a completely different location, an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, and an all-new character, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), a British super-spy and, in the first of innumerable Bond riffs, a modified Aston Martin. On the trail of missing spy, McMissile runs afoul of Professor Zundapp (Thomas Kretschmann), an old nemesis up to no good, escaping with his life through a combination of luck and derring-do.

When Cars 2 finally switches back to Lightning McQueen, he’s returning to Radiator Springs for a long overdue respite. Mater’s the perfect best friend and sidekick, ever-loyal, ever-needy for his best friend’s attention. When, after spending an entire day with Mater, McQueen attempts to pry himself loose from Mater’s figurative grip (cars may be self-aware and sentient in CarWorld, but they still don’t have opposable thumbs) to spend time with his (figurative) main squeeze, Sally (Bonnie Hunt). Overhearing a TV program about the upcoming World Grand Prix sponsored by alternative-fuel magnate Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), Mater becomes incensed when an Italian Formula 1 racecar, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), calls out McQueen for avoiding the three-city race. Pride-hurt, McQueen agrees to participate in the race. He also agrees, probably against his better judgment, to take Mater with him as part of his pit crew.

Cars 2 segues back to the spy story, following McMissile and a first-time-in-the-field spy, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), as they follow the trail to Tokyo, Japan for the first leg of the World Gran Prix. At a pre-race party, Mater embarrasses himself and the social status-conscious McQueen. He also runs into McMissile and Shiftwell, setting up two parallel storylines, McQueen, the World Gran Prix, and his rivalry with Bernoulli, and the spy story with Mater, mistaken for an American operative, joining McMissile and Shiftwell. In Bond pastiche form, Cars 2 jumps from country to country (e.g., Japan, France, Italy, and England). McQueen, however, takes a (figurative) backseat story to Mater’s misadventures as a not-spy spy, essentially making Mater the co-protagonist or even the central protagonist.

On one level, Lasseter and his collaborators, including new screenwriter Ben Queen, should be commended for refusing to repeat (or remake) Cars beat-for-beat as most mainstream sequels do (e.g. The Hangover II). On another level, however, Lasseter risked alienating his core audience, an audience that wanted to see Lightning McQueen, not Mater, as the central character, as the character with the most screen time. Unfortunately, Lasseter squanders the good will, not to mention points, garnered as a result of Cars 2 semi-originality by making, then following through on the ill-conceived decision to give Mater, a character defined by his rampant, rampaging idiocy (he's an idiot savant without the savant part), most of Cars 2’s screen time. Idiocy as a font for humor may be tolerable in small, well-timed bursts, but in Cars 2, a film that seems to celebrate idiocy, especially of the culturally ignorant kind, it’s not.

Lasseter and his co-director, Brad Lewis, compound that major misstep by making several more. With an overly convoluted, difficult-to-follow plot crammed into nearly two hours, Lasseter repeatedly resorts to lengthy chases (each city gets one) accompanied by prodigious amounts of gunplay. Indulging his inner 12-year-old, Lasseter armed the spy cars, including the aptly named McMissile, with machine guns (McMissile rarely passes up the opportunity to use them). As overlong and over-indulgent (to show off Pixar’s state-of-the-computer-art render farm) as the seemingly endless chase scenes are, they’re made worse by Lasseter’s surprising decision to use the word “kill” in conjunction with the villains’ plans for McQueen. Cars can and do die, including hero cars (one dies offscreen, another’s demise appears in reel time, but indirectly, through a pane of glass), making Cars 2 far too intense for small children.

Whatever its faults (and they’re considerable), "Cars 2" has an unintended effect: It makes "Cars," Lasseter’s nostalgic paean to long-gone Americana (specifically road excursions and Route 66) and small town life, look like a much better, perhaps unjustly maligned Pixar film. At the time, critics denigrated "Cars" for its wholesale borrowing of another paean to small-town life, "Doc Hollywood," but even unflattering comparisons and accusations of unoriginality do little to minimize "Cars’" expert plotting, mixing McQueen’s predictable, if no less satisfying, redemption arc, with exhilarating, immersive, multi-angled racing scenes and deeply textured environments (setting aside, of course, unanswered questions about the absence of humans, but the presence of obviously man-made or human-influenced structures, etc.).

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