A good friend and fellow movie buff has described Cars 2 as "the boss' pet project." See, in 2006, Cars was the first film John Lasseter had directed since 1999's Toy Story 2, and this sequel is his only other film in the five years since then. In interviews, Lasseter has talked up his love for the sport of auto racing and the historic U.S. Route 66 highway that inspired the first film. And also, he's the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, as well as of Walt Disney Animation Studios. So yes, this being the boss' pet project is as good a reason as any for why Pixar chose to make a sequel to one of their least-loved movies; the only other reason is that its least-loved movie is also its most money-making, with merchandise sales in excess of $5 billion. And then the movie came out in June and earned Pixar's worst critical drubbing ever, scoring only 37% on RottenTomatoes. It's enough to make a true-blue Pixar fanboy like myself despair.
Okay, Pixar is still Pixar. But yeah, this is the least Pixar-like Pixar movie since, well, ever.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is now a world-famous racer who has returned to his home of Radiator Springs and his closest friends, especially Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Then they learn of a new race organized by billionaire Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) as a means to promote his new biofuel; provoked by taunts from Italian racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), McQueen decides to take part, this time bringing Mater with him to the race's international locales such as Japan, Italy and England. But Mater's simple-mindedness and ignorance end up embarrassing him and drives a wedge in their friendship - and in turn, leads to Mater getting embroiled in a deadly spy plot. British intelligence agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake him for a secret agent, and recruit him into foiling a conspiracy to sabotage the race, conducted by the evil genius Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann) who is working for a secret mastermind. A conspiracy that may have deadly consequences for the racers - including McQueen.
As you can probably tell, I have a weakness for animated family films. Two of my No. 1 best films of the year have been from Pixar, and I've been mostly quite generous in my opinions of even non-Pixar offerings (except for Despicable Me, and nothing's gonna convince me it was good). Cars 2 is about as good as the more recent DreamWorks Animation releases, which means it's still quite good; it's a bright, imaginative, clever, and perfectly enjoyable movie that will keep kids enthralled and adults entertained. But Pixar's usual, self-ordained standard is to keep both kids and adults enthralled - the former with dazzling visuals, the latter with either thought-provoking ideas or heartrending emotional weight and often both. And their latest film just doesn't match up, largely because it only has one of those to offer.
The first Cars was about humility, maturity, and finding something worth loving more than one's own self. Which, in execution, wasn't quite as engaging as Toy Story 3's ruminations on mortality or Up's meditation on grief and loss, but at least it was about something. Cars 2 is about how Mater should be comfortable being himself - which, okay, is something, but it's also terribly hackneyed and trite. It's a tired old cliché of kids' movies, and it's even been done better in films like How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. None of the supposedly poignant scenes between McQueen and Mater stir any emotions, and it doesn't help that the "himself" that Mater ought to be is an idiotic redneck stereotype. "Being yourself" is the wrong lesson to learn if you're a buffoon to begin with! Sure, he eventually redeems himself and saves the day with his unique Mater-ness, but that's just Screenwriting 101. Pixar is usually much better at storytelling than this.
Fact is, the friendship between these two wasn't even the most affecting relationship in the first film; that'd be the one between McQueen and Doc Hudson, voiced by the late Paul Newman. Both character and actor get a tribute in an early scene that feels clumsy and tacked-on, and serve only to remind us that Cars, despite being the weakest entry in Pixar's ouevre - till now - was still a characteristically Pixar story. More proof that Cars 2 isn't is the fact that its new characters are all one-note and underdeveloped. Neither Michael Caine nor Emily Mortimer are impressive as Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, mainly because all they do is follow the plot; there's a half-hearted attempt at a romantic subplot between Holley and Mater that's just half-hearted. And Finn's arsenal of gadgets is fun, but for the most part he just plays second fiddle to Mater. For the amount of screentime they have, neither of them possess the depth that Pixar is known for investing in their characters.
But Cars 2 does improve on its predecessor in one respect. In my Retro Review of Cars, I mentioned that it's slow and self-indulgent, but its sequel makes up for that with its action scenes. They're fun, frantic, filled with clever and witty touches, and not to mention frequent; parents needn't worry about the kids getting too bored with the talky bits before the cars start chasing and shooting at each other and blowing things up again. Another thing Pixar is an acknowledged master of is the genuinely thrilling action scene, and on that score this movie delivers. It is also typically great to look at, and moving the story out of Radiator Springs allows it to show us some gorgeous visual design; I thought the Porto Corsa locale of the second race was especially beautiful. We also get to see a lot more of this world of anthropomorphic automobiles - which, yes, doesn't make a lick of sense, but it is what it is: an excuse for lots and lots of car puns, both verbal and visual. Some of them may be groaners, but hey, I like puns.
So once again, it's a fun and enjoyable movie and perfectly serviceable as family entertainment. It just isn't more than perfectly serviceable, which is what we've come to expect from Pixar. And being a fanboy of theirs, I can't help but wonder why they made this, and why they made it like this. Maybe it really is the boss' pet project; maybe Pixar's true legacy is being carried on by folks like Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, and maybe Lasseter is losing his touch - which is sad for the man who directed Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Or maybe the real reason is this. Which, if it is true, I'm more than willing to forgive them for. Let them get their moneymaker out of the way, let them silence their shareholders, let them earn the creative freedom they need to make masterpieces once again. Let this just be a minor misstep, or a necessary evil - and not, God forbid, the start of a decline.
NEXT REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian
Expectations: I love this stuff, it can't be that bad - can it?...