Cars 2 is something more disappointing than Pixar’s first unmistakably mediocre film: It’s a work of disheartening anonymity.
In the 16 years since their pioneering masterpiece Toy Story, Pixar did more than accumulate one of the most consistently excellent track records in Hollywood history. They fashioned a creative culture emphasizing story, characters, theme and emotional truth.
Although each film is supposed to represent the vision of its director, there is also a sense of the studio itself as auteur or author. It’s impossible to imagine movies like Finding Nemo and Wall-E having been made anywhere else in Hollywood.
The original Cars wasn’t a great film, but it was unmistakably a Pixar work, fueled by the filmmakers’ palpable passion for stock-car racing, with a lovingly nostalgic ode to the American Midwest, the 1950s and the “mother road,” Route 66.
Cars 2, which takes Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) abroad for the first World Grand Prix race, still has a lot of racing and makes a lot of cultural jokes, but there’s little sign of the filmmakers being inspired by anything beyond 007 / “Inspector Gadget” spy fantasy — something DreamWorks’ genre spoofs (Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens, Megamind) have done better.
Visuals aside, Cars 2 is the first Pixar film ever (or at least since A Bug’s Life) that one could easily imagine as a DreamWorks film — circa Shark Tale, perhaps, with its punningly fishified analog of the human world. Or, with its frenetic action and gimmickry, Cars 2 bears some resemblance to a Blue Sky Studios cartoon (circa Robots, say, or Rio, with its world-culture flavor). In a word, not only is Cars 2 mediocre, it doesn’t even feel like mediocre Pixar.
More pointedly, Cars 2 is exactly the sort of sequel many Pixar fans feared Disney was poised to crank out back when it looked like Pixar and Disney were parting ways. Pixar owned the films, but Disney had sequel rights, and a Pixar-less version of Toy Story 3 was in the works at Disney until the Mouse bought Pixar, and John Lasseter, taking the reins at Disney animation, pulled the plug. Later, Lasseter reconsidered and reworked Toy Story 3 from the ground up as a pretty worthy wrap-up.
The Toy Story sequels took the characters and relationships of the original to new territory. Cars 2 takes its characters to new countries, but nothing that could be called character development occurs, and there are no relationships to speak of. Lightning still considers Mater his best friend, but other than revisiting memories of tractor tipping, there’s not much to their relationship besides Lightning affectionately tolerating or not tolerating Mater’s obnoxious or embarrassing behavior. Lightning’s still dating Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), but their relationship’s dramatically irrelevant.
The story bifurcates into overlapping plots involving Lightning and Mater. On the one hand, Lightning accepts a challenge to race against a self-aggrandizing Italian racecar named Francesco Bernoulli (John Tuturro), a Grand Prix that will take them to Tokyo, Rome and London (with a stopover in Paris). (In a nice touch, the film establishes that Lightning, having learned that winning isn’t everything, is willing to rise above Francesco’s taunts and pass on the race in order to spend his time off in Radiator Springs — but he ultimately accepts when he realizes that his friends want to see him take Francesco down a peg.)
Mater, meanwhile, gets mixed up in an exhausted mistaken-identity spy plot involving automotive British superspy Finn McMissile (an Aston Martin, naturally, voiced by Michael Caine) and Jaguar-like Bond girl Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Like all superspies in all such movies, Finn and Holley are so super competent that they never, ever suspect that Mater is actually an idiot and not a top American superspy pretending to be an idiot.
Which of these two plotlines is more dominant is signaled by a notable reshuffling in the credits lineup: Owen Wilson takes second billing, and Larry the Cable Guy is now the star. In fact, Cars 2 makes a lot more sense once you realize it’s not so much a sequel to Cars as a feature-length expansion of Mater’s post-Cars solo adventures, first in the short Mater and the Ghostlight and then in the TV series Cars Toons: Mater’s Tall Tales.
Cars 2’s spy story is almost exactly like a feature-length version of one of Mater’s Tall Tales, except that the tall tales are told as if they came from Mater’s overheated imagination, whereas Cars 2 tells its story straight. He even gets outfitted with Bond-car extras (afterburners, Gatling guns, etc.) — just the sort of thing that happens in the Tall Tales. Unlike the Tall Tales, in Cars 2 the violence is pretty rough, particularly for a G-rated film (in one scene a captive car is tortured and “killed” by the bad guys, and there are a number of other automotive “deaths” as well as crack-ups).
One other important difference: In the Tall Tales, Mater is a confident, competent hero who’s always in control. Cars 2 makes him a blithering buffoon who not only humiliates Lightning at a Tokyo cocktail party with his blundering behavior, but obliviously costs Lightning a race by getting distracted while acting as crew chief. Lightning takes as much of this as he can before blurting in exasperation, “This is why I never bring you to my races! I don’t want your help! I don’t need your help!”
It’s a mark of the film’s falsity that Lightning, not Mater, is ultimately adjudicated to be in the wrong, while Mater is affirmed “just the way he is.” Being affirmed “just the way he is” does not mean that Mater can’t have cool spy-movie upgrades.
“If he is your friend,” someone asks Lightning in what’s meant to pass as a wise, penetrating line, “why do you ask him to be someone he is not?” Um, because making a spectacle of yourself isn’t always acceptable behavior? Later, a contrite Lightning tells Mater, “If anyone has a problem with who you are, they’re the one with the problem.” So when Mater cost him the race, Lightning was the one with the problem?
This pattern is reiterated in the spy thread in which Mater obliviously blunders through life-and-death situations before being unavoidably confronted with his shortcomings by an unknowing remark from Finn McMissile, who refers to his “idiot tow truck” act. When Mater, stunned, asks if that’s how McMissile sees him, the superspy answers, “That’s how everyone sees you. … No one realizes they’re being fooled, because they’re too busy laughing at the fool. Brilliant cover, Mater!”
After humiliating Mater in this fashion, the movie makes it up to him in condescending, wish-fulfillment fashion, not only allowing him to save the day while demonstrating his mastery of technical minutia, but topping it off with Finn solemnly lauding Mater to his friends as “one of the smartest and most honest chaps we’ve ever met,” while Holley identifies herself as “Mater’s girlfriend,” thereby validating Mater’s earlier misapprehensions along those lines. It’s as phony a group-hug ending as any I can think of.
The automotive Cars universe, with its complete absence of human or animal life, never made sense, but at least the first movie managed to maintain an illusion of consistency. There were tractors and farms, but you could watch the film without wondering who the crops were for. In Cars 2 Mater scarfs down wasabi at a cocktail party. Wasabi? That would never have passed in the original.
One of my favorite lines is Mater’s rhetorical response to a stupid question: “Is the popemobile Catholic?” Later, though, in the Rome sequence, we actually see the white-mitered popemobile — and he’s riding in a … popemobile-mobile, which may be an absurdity too many.
P.S. Cars 2 is preceded by Hawaiian Vacation, a short featuring the Toy Story gang, now living in Bonnie’s room. Pixar’s best shorts start with a concept and noodle it in hilarious directions, often with little or no dialogue. Here, starting with a talky cast of characters developed for a feature film, they’re reduced to character gags, a number of which we’ve seen before. (Buzz pompously mispronounces a word and is corrected by Woody! Rex wants bigger arms! Etc.) Ken and Barbie were hilarious in Toy Story 3, but here they run out of juice after about a minute and a half. I suspect that removing these characters from their feature-length context, above all with Andy out of the picture, isn’t likely to pay off. Toy Story is over. Leave the characters in peace.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Anthropomorphized vehicular violence (including multicar crashes and car fatalities); a sequence in which a car is tortured and killed; some toilet humor, if you can believe it. Might be too much for sensitive kids.