Cars 2 (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, G)

Now I can safely say that Cars 2 is their worst film, though even it isn’t all that bad—just slightly worse than the original Cars.

 

 

It’s often written about Pixar that since their first foray into feature films (with 1995’s Toy Story, which quickly became one of the most beloved of modern movies) they have yet to produce a failure. The closest they’ve come so far was in 2006’s Cars, and many people (erroneously) remember Cars as being a flop. In fact, the year it was released Cars was the third-highest grossing movie in the U.S. box office (behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Night at the Museum), and scored 74% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which is lower than most Pixar movies but still far from a critical failure. But the key here is that, little boys aside (who have been eating up Cars merchandise for years, which is presumably the reason for this sequel), most people remember Cars as being a bad movie and a failure, even though it was far from either. Basic extrapolation points to the fact that in making a pretty blatant cash-grab of a sequel to their least popular film, Pixar is ready to tarnish their pristine track record, perhaps intentionally. I guess such high expectations as are afforded to their films could break just about anybody.

Despite the previous paragraph’s making a quick case for the original Cars’ merits, the film is (or, was) still Pixar’s worst. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but that Pixar of course makes nothing but great films. But now I can safely say that Cars 2 is their worst film, though even it isn’t all that bad—just slightly worse than the original Cars. Considering what they are working with, too, that’s a miracle in and of itself. Aside from the unsightly cash-grab factor of this film, consider that the voice to Cars’ most likeable character, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), died in 2008 and couldn’t contribute here, and that Cars’ breakout supporting character Mater (voiced by the detestable Larry the Cable Guy) has been promoted to the main character. Furthermore, there is no longer the theme of celebrating small-town Americana, but instead the action is set in a wider array of glitzy locales than a Sex & the City movie. How could Cars 2 not be horrible? All of the things that didn’t work about the first one are still here, too; Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) saying “ka-chow” annoyingly often, DreamWorks-level use of music, the fact that it’s about dumbass talking cars in the first place.

The conceit behind Cars 2 is that, in Mater’s first trip to watch Lightning McQueen compete in a race (presumably aside from the time he watched him race at the end of Cars, though that’s ignored here), he inadvertently gets mixed up in a case of international intrigue involving a much-criticized fossil fuel alternative called Allinall, a James Bond-ish car called Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), and cars that mysteriously go up in flames while racing. There’s also a surprising amount of gunplay here for a G-rated movie; I guess the MPAA thinks it’s okay if cars are shooting at one another rather than people? Anyway, in typical genre film protocol, it is left up to dumb old Mater to solve the mystery and keep his friend Lightning McQueen safe and able to race (and try not to embarrass him with his lack of culture in the process).

Much as I don’t like Larry the Cable Guy, I will cede that he did a fine job voicing Mater in the original film, but with the bigger role here both he and Mater quickly become grating. (Maybe playing an idiot tow truck is out of LtCG’s intellectual range after all.) Still, there is fun to be had, mostly with the introduction of the British characters—the aforementioned Finn, but also Finn’s assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, whose presence in good films I miss) and the inventor of Allinall, Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). Despite my liking Owen Wilson I have never much cared for Lightning McQueen, and while he’s less annoying here than he was in the first film, it is perhaps because he has less screen time (like the inverse of the Mater problem). Most of the other characters from Cars take a backseat (no pun intended) to Mater and the new characters.

So, while Cars 2 isn’t the mess that a lot of people are expecting it to be, it certainly does have its share of problems and, more worryingly, seems to be pointing Pixar in the wrong direction. Remember the days when Pixar didn’t want to make Toy Story 2 but were more or less strong-armed into it by then-Disney chief Michael Eisner? Toy Story 2 and 3 were good films featuring much-beloved characters, and deserved all of the money they made and praise they received. I’m willing to bet that Cars 2 will make plenty of money, and I’m worried what effect it will have on Pixar to find out that they can phone movies in and still make huge piles of cash. Or, consider this fact: Pixar used to use their pre-feature shorts to try out new things, much like how Walt Disney himself did back in the early part of the 20th century. But before Cars 2 we get a Toy Story short—I like Toy Story as much as anybody, but do we really need a new Toy Story short the year after 3’s release? And what new techniques exactly are they testing out here? Sure, the short (entitled “Hawaiian Vacation”) is fun, but is it really necessary? I’ll take a “Presto,” a “Partly Cloudy,” or a “Day and Night” over this or “Mike’s New Car,” and I’ll take Wall-E or Up over Toy Story 3 or Cars 2. | Pete Timmermann

 

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