Whenever critics stack up Pixar’s movies, Cars usually ends up on the bottom. Racecars with eyeballs on their windshields living in an all-car world freaked some people out, but I always liked it. I think it’s better than Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille and definitely better than A Bug’s Life. When I saw the trailer for the sequel, though, I wasn’t so thrilled, given that it departed quite a lot from the storyline of the first Cars, which was about a narcissistic racecar learning to make friends:
A rusty tow truck gets a chance to shine when he’s mistaken for an international spy while accompanying his racecar best friend on a world grand prix tour.
But of course I went to see it anyway, because I always think that Pixar stories aren’t going to work when I see them in trailer form and then I end up loving them after seeing the movie. I had doubts about Cars, Toy Story 3, and even Up, so I was prepared to be wrong about Cars 2. Sadly, it turned out that I wasn’t.
Cars 2 has two storylines going concurrently. In one, the main character from the first film, Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is struggling to win a grand prix series with races in Japan, Italy, and England to prove that a new alternative fuel works. His goal, to win a race, is a repeat of what he was trying to achieve in the first film. The only difference is that he’s got to deal with a narcissistic Italian F-1 Ferrarri named Francesco Bernoulli (voice of John Turturro) who is basically the same as Lightning was in the first movie.
And is obviously a stand-in for Michael Schumacher, an F-1 driver everyone loves to hate.
Lightning’s super hick best friend Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) embarrasses him early on and they have a fight, splitting their stories. So while Lightning is racing, two top secret British spies, Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer) who are trying to prevent the lemon cars who work for Big Oil from sabotaging the race, accidentally mistake Mater for the American spy they’re supposed to meet.
The lemon cars are hilarious: they’re all Gremlins and Yugos and Pintos
The whole spy thing, while totally cool at times, is a jarring shift from the tone of the first movie, especially since cars actually die (blow up, break down, whatever you want to call it), which confused some of the kids. Finn and Holly have a myriad of gadgets that help them float, fly, climb, spy, sneak, etc. They’re also very cool characters, like if James Bonds’ cars came to life.
Can I have one with wings, please?
It’s neat, but it really calls attention to how little cars in their native form can do. With no hands, how do they build the buildings we see in the movie? How do they drill for, refine, and serve the oil and gas they need? Why do they need suitcases when they travel? How do they pack the suitcases? What do they put in them? How do they write ransom notes? Who is manufacturing the cars in the first place?
And why do they eat Wasabi? I’ve never seen a Wasabi tank in a car.
The spy storyline is dominant, which makes Mater the main character this time, not Lightning. The problem is that the storyline requires Mater to be insecure about his abilities, and Mater doesn’t have a self esteem problem. They just graft one onto him to make the story work. At one point he says: “But I’m just a tow truck!” which is the least Mater-like line I’ve ever heard.
Because Mater thinks Mater is awesome. He likes being an idiot.
The message also contradicts the message from the first film. In Cars, Lightning has to learn to be a better person (car?) because he’s a jerk and he’s putting off/insulting everyone and has no friends. In Cars 2, Mater makes several gaffes that aren’t just embarrassing to his friends but also insulting to people of other cultures, but the message here is that Mater should just be himself and everyone who has a problem with him can take a flying leap.
I think everyone should be more like the jet plane.
His name is Siddely and he’s SO CUTE!
So the spy stuff is cool, the villains are clever, and there are a few chuckle worthy cameos of car versions of famous people, like the Queen (who is a Bently, I think) and “Prince Wheelham” (who is some sort of car with stripes?).
Long Run the Queen!
But despite all this, Cars 2 feels less than. I would rank it at the bottom of the Pixar heap. Even the short before the feature was a lackluster sequel to Toy Story 3. It leads me to wonder everyone at Pixar just agreed they would all phone it in this year. Hopefully they’re not losing it. I guess we’ll have to wait for Brave, next year’s all-new Celtic tale, to find out.