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Cars 2 (3D) (2011)

June 24, 2011

written by: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, & Dan Fogelman
produced by: Denise Ream
directed by: John Lasseter & Brad Lewis
rated G
113 min.
U.S. release date: June 24, 2011
I never saw 2006’s “Cars” in theaters, but I did eventually catch up with it about a year later on DVD.  The bizarre world where anthropomorphic vehicles cruised the Earth, devoid of humans, did nothing for me. While I enjoyed its beautifully detailed animation (particularly the scenery of the American southwest) and some of the voice work, I was ultimately disappointed, finding the main characters dumb and stereotypically one-note. It was the first Pixar misfire for me (I’m not alone) and that could be because it followed “The Incredibles”, or just that it was the most lacklaster release yet, until now.

The best thing “Cars 2” has going for it is that it’s not a rehash, unlike so many sequels being made. The story has a different, more adventurous tone filled with colorful new settings. Yet, it is clearly a marketing bonanza, designed to add new toys and tie-ins to the billions made on the first one. Sure, this is a labor of love for co-writer/director (and Pixar founder) John Lasseter, an admitted gearhead, but there’s no getting around how profitable merchandising will be for this movie, regardless of how good it is. 

CARS 2 Lightning McQueen

After repeatedly winning the Piston Cup, superstar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is ready to slow down and take it easy, as he returns to the humble town of Radiator Springs he now calls home. Everyone is glad to see him back, but it’s his enthusiastic best pal, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who’s especially sputtering with joy. McQueen’s rest stop is soon halted when arrogant Italian racecar, Francesco (John Turturro) challenges him to join the World Grand Prix, put on by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard),  a former oil tycoon who is now promoting an environmentally friendly fuel. 

With his faithful crew intact, McQueen reluctantly agrees to take Mater along on a tour that will span Tokyo, France, Italy, and England. It doesn’t take long for the impatient McQueen to become completely embarrassed by Mater’s redneck ways. This creates a rift between the two that finds Mater unintentionally becoming involved in international espionage with master spy Finn McMissile (a perfectly cast Michael Caine) and his assertive accomplice, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, giving Emily Blunt a break), as they discover a mysterious plot to sabotage the races. Once Mater realizes the danger McQueen is in, the blundering buddy must pull himself together and try to save the day in his own unlikely way. 

CARS 2 Finn McMissile

The movie boldly spins into the spy thriller, giving viewers something different to take in. Unfortunately, the plot is convoluted and the overall story is a tad too long for the target audience, making the dazzling action simply exhausting. I’ll wager that despite all the gun-toting/rocket-blasting/bomb-detonating violence, the film maintained a G rating because no humans were harmed. It’s not the first time we’ve been exposed to the double-standards of the MPAA, but I’d like to believe that all that rat-a-tat-tat is kind of overwhelming for some kids. 

Al least the art direction is impressive (as are most Pixar films), with its cool spy colors and a variety of bright hues depicting different locales.  Indeed, the new characters will be all over T-shirts and backpacks, with toy store shelves spilling over into the eager hands of pleading children, but at least we have some new geography here. But, by now, with so many competitors churning out good-looking work, Pixar should know that story is really all that matters.  

Composer Michael Giacchino has become the Pixar go-to guy, and rightly so. He’s proven his versatility with past films (“Ratatouille” and “Up” had gorgeous scores), and injected “The Incredibles” with a wonderfully retro John Barry feel. Now, Giacchino fully embraces the retro once again, with a welcome 60s spy riff, adding something new to the country twang sounds from the previous “Cars” film. More than once, I caught myself nodding and smiling at Giacchino’s choices. If only his contribution was just one of many entertaining aspects of the movie.   
My biggest gripe is that the annoying and unfunny buck-toothed Mater is forced into the fast lane, while McQueen is ka-chowed to the sidelines. I could care less about either of them actually, but Mater’s humor is so derivatively repetitive. That’s right, even in the first movie, I didn’t really couldn’t stand these characters. So, when this movie opens with McMissile on a covert mission, I was ready to embrace something new. I mean, it’s Michael Caine, after all! I had more fun hearing and seeing Caine and Mortimer (and Bruce Campbell!) immerse themselves in this Bond riff, than I did seeing Mater mistake wasabi for green ice cream or encounter a bidet. Granted, most of the Mater humor is mistakenly aimed at adults in the audience (are children gonna know what a bidet is?), but the problem is, a little Larry the Cable Guy goes a long, long way.

CARS 2 London

Lasseter, along with co-screenwriters Ben Queen (who wrote for the 2007 cross-country road race “Driven” for Fox) and Dan Fogelman (fresh off the fun “Tangled”, formerly of “Bolt”), tries to shoehorn a “friends letting friends just be themselves” message. But, I don’t know if I buy all that. We’re supposed to believe that McQueen should just go ahead and let his redneck friend make a scene as he is exposed (and in turn, is himself exposed) to different cultures? A real friend would prep that sheltered friend and prepare them for a culture shock, but McQueen could care less….and so do the writers, apparently.  Instead of providing a “friends helping friends” message, we witness McQueen leave Mater to make a fool of himself. 

There are elements I just don’t get about the “Cars” universe, I’ll admit. Maybe I’m looking into it all too much, but lingering questions remain. Who made these cars? Why (and how) are they male and female? Did they, at one time, kill off all humans and overthrow civilization as we know it? Yeah, I know, pointless questions, but I bet I’m not the only one. 

Artistically, it makes little sense for Pixar to make a sequel to its least successful film, (I maintain that “A Bug’s Life” is superior to “Cars”), but we all know why it was made. The real mistake here is the money-grabbing maneuvers we’re seeing the studio make (“Monsters University” a sequel to 2001’s “Monsters, Inc” is due in 2013), instead of delivering unique, well-written, stand-alone stories. That being said, I do want an awesome sequel to “The Incredibles”, instead of more talking cars or silly monsters. 

As for the 3D? It’s become much more tolerable in animated features, but it is also quite tiresome. I must say though, I was awestruck by the trailer for the 3D re-release of “The Lion King” that will come out this September. Ultimately, more spy games and less sputtering humor would’ve been welcome, but it seems that the powers that be were not willing to curb their beloved cash-ion characters.

NOTE: Like every Pixar film, “Cars 2” includes a clever animated short that precedes the main feature. This one you won’t wanna miss, as we revisit the “Toy Story” gang in “Hawaiian Vacation”. It’s a relentlessly hilarious short, that sees Woody, Buzz, Jess, and the gang help Ken and Barbie have the Hawaiian vacation of Ken’s dreams. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. Well, except that I was very impressed at how director Gary Rydstrom was able to provide room enough for characters from all three movies to deliver some great comedic beats, without feeling too crammed. Well done, Pixar. 
RATING: **1/2
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    June 26, 2011 1:29 am

    Well, I agree with you on two points: you don’t “get it” and way too much Larry the Cable Guy. Chop fifteen minutes off of this movie (mostly of Mater) and it could be awesome! I loved all of the additional voice casting as well as the spy stuff. But to have Lighting side-lined for what essentially became an extended episode of Mater Tales (a series of Mater-centric shorts that originally aired on the Disney Channel that didn’t even have Owen Wilson voicing McQueen, possibly created when he was wanting to off himself) was just a disappointment. I still like the movie, especially for the spy and race sequences, but it could have and should have been so much more story-wise. It’s still better than the original Cars, A Bug’s Life and the abysmal last half of WALL-E.

  2. windi noel permalink
    July 15, 2011 8:53 pm

    Matt went and saw this by himself a couple of weeks ago and absolutely loved it. He said it was better than the first one. Then he took the boys to go see it when he came up to visit last week and they loved it, too. They agreed it was better than the first one.

    I really didn’t want to see it. I just felt like one ‘Cars’ was enough. Glad Matt took the boys and I’m glad they enjoyed it.

    Speaking of sequels, saw the preview for Happy Feet Two today. (where’s the smiley with the bugging out eyes?) I have no words…. Trevor and Calvin both were like NO WAY! *whew* Neither of them liked the first one at all.


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