REVIEW: Cars 2 [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: G | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: June 24th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Pixar Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): John Lasseter / Brad Lewis (co-director)
Writer(s): Ben Queen / John Lasseter, Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman (story)

“I vant to siphon your gas”

Being that I was not in what appeared to be a vast majority of people who thought Cars was ‘lesser’ Pixar, I can’t say I was too surprised to find I was on the outside of the even bigger group of critics who trashed Cars 2 as a sequel based solely on toy manufacturing profit. Yes, it is totally a cash-grab—I’m not questioning that fact—but alongside this is an attempt to create something the studio has yet to do, an entertaining comedy existing on its own sake without an agenda to warm hearts and teach morality. Those aspects are included, especially feelings of friendship and loyalty, but the ultimate purpose of the new film is to give people a family friendly tale of international espionage full of high-tech gadgetry, extended car chases—well duh, the cast is all cars—and an action flavor devoid of sappy James Taylor songs and wide-eyed sadness necessitating a learning experience and character growth. No, Cars 2 is exactly what you’d expect a summer blockbuster sequel to be—mindless entertainment.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think I’d ever describe a Pixar film with those words. I’d almost believe it to be impossible and unworthy of Luxo Jr.’s stamp of approval. But who am I kidding, even with less heart and sentimentality, this film is still more enjoyable compared to what the other studios are doing. Possibly the weakest Pixar to date, it is still on par with good Dreamworks (Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda). Or at least it is to me. It’s not up to snuff with How To Train Your Dragon, it’s definitely not on the level of Up—hell, it isn’t even on the level of Cars—but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Full of explosions, exotic and foreign locales, a plethora of familiar guest starring voices, and fantastic production value in the glares and reflections rendered throughout, this is the animated version of a big budget tentpole popcorn flick. So why can’t we treat it as such?

If I were to make one suggestion, it would be to switch out a couple names in the billing order. No matter how much the plot revolves around Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his task of competing in the brand new World Grand Prix, the central focal point from start to finish is every kid’s favorite rusted tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). A bumbling idiot of an unlikely hero, Mater’s dumb luck ability to survive life-threatening situations and be what those around him need him to be, even if they believe it to be an act, is exactly what’s needed to thwart an international conspiracy. Accidentally thrown into this world of spies and danger when American agent Rod ‘Torque’ Redline (Bruce Campbell) plants a device with sensitive photos to his undercarriage, Mater becomes a liaison to Britain’s greatest field agent, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), and it’s top techno-wizard, Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Together, this trio works behind the scenes to save the world from a nameless hoard of criminals willing to kill every racer in the Grand Prix to achieve their goals.

As a result, Cars 2 is most definitely Larry the Cable Guy’s show. The comedian rubs me the wrong way in his stand-up, but somehow I never felt annoyed by his redneck schtick here. I think kids will love his goofiness and his heart—every dent on his body is worn as a badge of honor and a memory to the friends with him when they occurred. Mater is a likeable character that is more pathetic than anyone watching, bolstering even the most depressed or alienated child with the realization that anyone can become a hero as long as they go through life doing the right things. The film can’t start off this way, of course, since our hero must be exiled from McQueen’s camp to have the time to take such an important mission with government agents. So, his penchant for screwing things up and being the hick from the country thrown into the posh setting of a Tokyo, upper crust soirée must rear its head. His unknown foiling of Lightning’s first race the last straw for the racecar, a stress-fueled rant tossing his best friend to the curb.

This is where the little heart comes into play as McQueen regrets his actions as soon as his mouth closes. By that time, though, it’s too late; Mater has already been recruited by McMissile and Shiftwell and is off to help discover who’s behind the conspiracy of ‘lemon’ thugs trying to defame entrepreneur Sir Miles Axelrod’s (Eddie Izzard) new alternative fuel. There is a mysterious mid-ocean location of oil derricks, supposedly over the largest untapped reservoir of the fossil fuel; a series of breadcrumb trailed clues strangely leading them on a parallel path of the same locations of the Grand Prix; and an unknown disguised engine controlling all, giving orders and threatening to destroy anyone who gets in his way. And with a creepy German mastermind in Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann in a rare comedic role), mob-like heavies in Grem (Joe Mantegna) and Acer (Peter Jacobson), and pompous, egotism of McQueen’s chief rival in the race, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), the quality of entertaining villainy is never lacking.

But while uncovering the conspiracy and allowing Mater to save his BFF’s life is of main importance, it’s the jokes, animation, and fun that resonated with me. I love how John Lasseter and his writing team didn’t pander to their audience by reintroducing us to every single car—in fact, most of the cast from the original are barely included here in lieu of the new, more exotic heroes and villains, (kudos, though, on a touching memorial to Paul Newman)—throwing us into the mix years later, merely showing how McQueen’s won a few Piston Cups and that Radiator Springs is back on the map. Instead of bogging us down with a hello from everyone, we watch early on how Mater stumbles his way into forcing McQueen to race when he really wanted a vacation and are soon whisked away to foreign lands so the real story can begin.

The weaponry and cool toys at McMissile and Shiftwell’s disposal are fantastic, how they integrate Mater into the mix is a laugh, and the meticulously rendered locales of Tokyo, Italy, and London—complete with Big Bentley—are a sight to see. Pop culture is given homage with the crazy Japanese gameshows, car-geishas, and neon upon neon lighting the night sky; the car-oriented old ruins and villas of Italy are utilized to explain a bit of Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido’s origins; and even easy jokes like left side driving in England find a way to earn a chuckle rather than an eye-roll. The cast list is impressive with Mantegna, Turturro, and Izzard being my faves while Wilson manages to retain the character we learned to love in the first. In the end, however, everything rests on Mater, so his love him or hate him quality will probably infer on your enjoyment of the movie. To me it worked and I can’t say I wasn’t happy to simply enjoy a good Bond-like yarn—even if it’s populated with cutesy, talking cars.

[1] (L-R) Finn McMissile (voice by Michael Caine), Mater (voice by Larry the Cable Guy), Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson). ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (L-R) Uncle Topolino (voice by Franco Nero), Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson) and Mama Topolino (voice by Vanessa Redgrave) in Cars 2. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
[3] (L-R) Professor Z (voice by Thomas Kretschmann), Mater (voice by Larry the Cable Guy), Holley Shiftwell (voice by Emily Mortimer), Finn McMissile (voice by Michael Caine) and Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson) in the scene of Cars 2. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

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