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Cars 2 Review

Even when Pixar doesn’t hit it out of the park with one of its animated features, it at least delivers a beautifully rendered film that both children and their parents can enjoy. For almost every film they’ve made, that has been Pixar’s greatest strength, but there is one exception. If there is a single original film in Pixar’s canon that feels more like a merchandising push than a well-written film it’s Cars. The story was generic, the voice acting boring, and it misses the mark in many more respects beyond that. It did find huge success in one area though: merchandising. Cars toys, costumes, backpacks, lunchboxes and other licensed items continue to sell well, because while the film lacked any heart or momentum, it has gone the distance in winning children over.

As a business decision, a sequel to Cars makes perfect sense: more toys equals more money; but as an animation studio with a reputation for producing rich stories with lovable characters, the choice to make Cars 2 instead of a sequel to stories that potentially had more to explore like The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, or Wall-E, is baffling. Expanding upon the obnoxious characters of Radiator Springs makes little sense, but turning the franchise into a spy caper proves just how little the original film demanded a sequel.

In Cars, racing hotshot Lightning McQueen became marooned in the small town of Radiator Springs were his ego got him into all sorts of trouble that only the friendship of a braindead tow truck, the mentorship of a retired racecar, and the love of a small town sweetheart could solve. When all was said and done, Lightning decided the little town he’d initially considered a personal hell was actually a paradise and he put down roots (or whatever the car equivalent of that is) and then found the lessons he’d learned there helped him be a better racer.

Now, if you had to make a sequel to that story, where would you take it? Lightning McQueen adapting to a quiet life in Radiator Springs? His struggles to balance fame with the modesty of small town living? Or would you take his supporting character, the aforementioned braindead tow truck, and cast him in a case of mistaken identity that unfolds in the workings of a spy thriller? Does one of those stories sound totally wrong? Well too bad, because the latter story is exactly what Pixar has given us, and from every angle but one Cars 2 is a lemon.

When the unbridled enthusiasm of Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the buffoonish tow truck, pulls Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) into a race against Italian Formula 1 car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), Mater’s redneck behavior embarrasses McQueen at a pre-race party in Tokyo. McQueen tells Mater off and the tow truck heads to the airport to fly home, only to get pulled into a top secret mission by agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). It turns out, they think he’s their American agent counterpart Rod ‘Torque’ Redline (Bruce Campbell), and despite Mater’s every attempt to enlighten them to his true identity, they perceive his idiocy to be cunning acts of spy savvy. Now, Mater is towline deep in a plot masterminded by defective cars to use an electromagnetic laser to sabotage racers and ruin the good name of a prominent new alternative fuel company owned by the upstanding Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard).

How many times has the spy genre been spoofed? It’s hard to count the number of films. Or, if you want to think of Cars 2 as a straight-up spy film, how many times has it been done better? The number is once again mind-boggling. Pixar made a major misstep in attempting to sequel Cars with a spy thriller while still retaining the main characters from the previous film. In fact, that might be the most frustrating part of the whole film. Had Pixar let Lightning McQueen and Mater off the hook and just made a whole new film within the pre-established Cars universe that merely intersected with the characters of the first film, Cars 2 could have been something fantastic.

Consider the cast Pixar assembled for the spy portion of the film: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, and, briefly, Bruce Campbell. Those three could have made for an incredible voice acting trio to carry a Cars-based spy thriller. And with the plot centered around the races, it still would have allowed for the inclusion of McQueen and Mater as recurring cameos. That seems to have been the route Pixar should have taken, especially considering Campbell’s brief hero-to-villain banter might be the most entertaining portion of the film for anyone over the age of nine. Instead, they killed off Campbell and wasted Caine and Mortimer as a seasoned operative and a technician who willfully ignored the stupidity of Mater just so Pixar could force a spy flick with a recognizable character. It’s disgusting.

And it only gets worse, because Pixar reveals that they’re well aware of just how flimsy their mistaken identity premise is. With Caine’s character offering up a bit of wisdom of how playing the fool can be an expert stratagem, Pixar tells us what we expected for the 90-minutes leading up to that point: they know how poorly conceived a story they’ve given us. Now, one could argue that as a Pixar film, Cars 2 gets subjected to a higher level of scrutiny than other animated films, and perhaps that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Cars 2 ranks as poorly as any of the direct-to-video sequels Disney churned out in the last two decades.

If it weren’t for the beautiful animation that works just as well in 3D as it does in 2D, Cars 2 would be night unrecognizable as a product of Pixar. It’s pretty and that might be enough for some, but it’s empty on the inside, like an experienced call girl. The visuals are up to par with other Pixar films; unfortunately they’re carrying all of the weight in terms of the expectations of quality and then some. The absolutely horrible quality of the story and its execution adds a lot of dead weight that only compounds the strain on Pixar to uphold its reputation as the current leader in animated features. Hopefully, this will be Pixar’s biggest stumbling block and they’ll get back to making films that resonate in the heart and not just the pocketbook.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The combo pack includes the film on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, and as a digital copy, however, there’s one more disc beyond that where most of the extras can be found. On the main feature Blu-ray, you’ll find the animated short “Air Mater”, the great Toy Story theatrical short “Hawaiian Vacation”, and a basic audio commentary with Director Brad Lewis. On the extra features Blu-ray you get a lot more in the form of a map with the various Cars 2 locations, with each of them offering up a slew of featurettes on subjects like animation, model development, voice recording, and more. Finally, there’s a sneak peek at the upcoming Cars Land at Disneyland, as if to further underscore that the Cars franchise has ceased to be about telling a good story and is more about milking children and their parents for every last cent.

"Cars 2" is on sale November 1, 2011 and is rated G. Action, Adventure, Animation, Children & Family. Directed by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis. Written by Ben Queen (screenplay), John Lasseter (story). Starring Eddie Izzard, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Larry The Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Owen Wilson.

Nov
03
2011
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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