Explosions blossom and gunfire erupts all too frequently in Pixar’s Cars 2, a mostly unnecessary sequel to the much-better 2006 original that showcases almost none of the sparkling wit and earnest emotion of their prior works.
It’s a wretched watershed in the company’s spotless record. As it lumbers along from one action sequence to the next with more plot lines than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and less charm than 10 minutes of any of Pixar’s previous pictures, one wonders how Cars 2 ever made it out of the company’s famed film factory. It’s like a mixture of DreamWorks Animation’s more mediocre efforts and a 60’s spy film, all rolled up in a flimsy, over-stuffed plot involving alternative fuels, the World Grand Prix, mistaken identities and strained friendships.
Had that last theme been the most prominent one – several of Pixar’s past films, including Toy Story and Monsters Inc., have explored the difficulties of maintaining friendship perfectly – then Cars 2 might’ve had a chance. As it stands now, though, it’s an unfortunate blemish for a company that all but rewrote the book on how heartachingly honest animated films could be.
The stories it attempts to tackle are as follows: Fin McMissile (voiced to perfection by the indispensable Michael Caine) is a British spy investigating a conspiracy involving a fuel called Allinol. The first thing we see is his extended action sequence, and while it’s an exciting way to open the film, it doesn’t hold a candle to the endless creativity of, say, Dash’s chase through the forest in The Incredibles or Mike and Sully’s romp through the Door Factory in Monsters Inc. Instead, it runs like a standard Michael Bay scene, with cars, stairs and barrels igniting with the reckless abandon of a 12-year old’s imagination. After his lengthy escape off an oil rig, McMissile is eventually told that he’ll have to meet up with an American operative at the World Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is best friends with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), and longs to go with him on his races. When Mater comes to the defense of McQueen the only way he knows how – quasi-funny ignorance – McQueen finds himself entered into the race and fighting for the title of Fastest Car in the World.
That’s a fairly exciting premise, though it plays second fiddle to the film’s main focus: Mater is mistaken for the American operative, and he’s dragged along with McMissile and his associate, Holly Shiftwell. As they dig deeper into the mystery of the alternative fuel being used at these races, truths are revealed, friendships are severed then remade, and betrayals are brought to light.
Not only is it convoluted, but it really isn’t all that much fun. Even some of Pixar’s bleaker films like Wall-E – with its downright dystopian image of Earth – and Up – which opens with that heartbreaking montage – were more at ease with frequent frivolities than this. Those pictures, intermittently beautiful, breathtaking and all-too-often hilarious, struck the perfect balance between lightheartedness and tender emotion. It’s really something that all their films have strived for, and while not all of them succeeded as spectacularly as, say, Toy Story 3, the efforts were noble and the outcomes were always infinitely better than the industry average.
Even Cars, with its occasionally plodding pace and annoying pop-filled soundtrack, seems categorically flawless when compared to the rat-a-tat-tat cut and paste nature of its sequel. I enjoyed the original film, warts and all, for its topical treatment of a long-forgotten era when travelers crossed the country not on direct highways, but roundabout hills and valleys. Those towns that were circumvented by the highway system had real people with real jobs in them, and when the cars stopped coming, so, too, did the money. It was that attempt at real emotion that made Cars, for all of its faults, a winner in my book.
But its sequel has three times as much action and none of the heart. It’s also surprisingly violent, with as many spraying bullets as The Matrix – the G-rating might as well stand for Guns. The action scenes go on for an interminable amount of time, as Mater drives and flies from one city to the next.
The animation is unquestionably gorgeous, but it’s what we’ve come to expect from Pixar: each of their films, for the last 15 years, has pushed the envelope for CGl. From the thousands of snow-drenched hairs on Sully’s back to the underwater worlds in Finding Nemo, Pixar has always found a way to leave us in awe at what their technological wizards can do. Cars 2 is no different, as the slick cars show off shiny reflections with stark realism and the individual cities – especially Tokyo, which glows with the magnificent neon hues of pink, green and purple – are all feasts for the eyes.
That’s the rub, though. Cars 2 treats your eyes to a show while making you regret having a brain, and it reminds you just how high Pixar set the bar with their 11 other features. In the past they cleared it no problem – here they crash into it at 200 mph. I’ll be the first to say it’s too soon to cite Cars 2 as the death knell of Pixar’s brand; they’ve got an original feature named Brave on the horizon, and it marks not only their first foray into fairy tales, but their first feature with a female protagonist. It should be fun and funny, mixing spectacular animation with real, human emotion. In other words, it’ll be Pixar.
But, sadly, Cars 2 shows us that every once in a while, the truly great companies – even the ones who hold the sanctity of Cultural Creativity higher than the almighty Profit Margin – can stumble. Let’s hope their bruised egos energize them enough to give us a better animated treat in 2012.
2 1/2 stars out of 5