I’m often inclined to give family movies a pass (as evidenced by my favorable review of Mr. Popper’s Penguins), if only because sometimes you’ve got to drag the family to a movie theater just to get them all to shut up for 2 hours.  Don’t worry, I sympathize here for you.  If you needed this critic’s permission to pack up the family and go to the multiplex, here it is:  Cars 2 is the ticket to buy this weekend.  It’s a big, colorful, noisy spectacle that will please broad audiences looking for a good time, especially small children.

But this is a Pixar film!  They’ve made some of the most emotionally resonant films of the last decade!  It’s impossible not to compare Cars 2 to the rest of their catalogue, and as soon as you begin to, it breaks down.  Read the rest of the review (and more car puns!), after the jump…

The Players

  • Directors- John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
  • Writers- Ben Queen, Dan Fogleman, John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
  • Stars- Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro
  • Original Music by- Michael Giacchino

Review Prequel:

Now before I even get into the sequel, let’s discuss for a moment why the first Cars movie is generally the most reviled of the Pixar works.  Its story is derivative and unimaginative (who here remembers Doc Hollywood?), its characters are cliché and stereotypical (and racist!  don’t forget, they’re kinda racist!), and its emotional substance is almost completely unmemorable.  Cars is Pixar pandering to audiences who would rather have something familiar and easy, rather than living up to the potential they’ve proven to have film after film.

But it worked!  Cars remains Disney and Pixar’s most profitable property, beating out Toy Story with over $2 Billion in merchandise and licensing sales per year.  Every little boy in the world goes through a car phase, so all you have to do is slap a pair of googley eyes on the windshield, and a price tag on the box, and you’re good to start raking it in.  Better Pixar than anyone else, I suppose.  And a few critics’ whiney reviews about how “disappointed” they are couldn’t possibly stop them from taking this rainmaker out for another spin.  Which brings me to…

The Plot:

When a loud mouthed Formula One race car (Turturro) goads Lightning McQueen (Wilson) into joining a worldwide racing tournament sponsored by an alternative energy impresario (Izzard), the gang hits the road!  Along the way, McQueen’s best friend ‘Mater (the Cable Guy) accidentally joins a pair of English special agents (Caine & Mortimer) in an international spy plot, a la James Bond.

That’s right, a spy plot…a la James Bond.  There’s gadgets, and chases, and explosions, and fighting (Like, kung-fu?  How is this even possible?).  In fact, we practically see more of these spy cars than we do of the characters from the first film!  The ones who, according to revenue reports, adored and beloved by all!  They’re barely in the movie!  Except for ‘Mater, the lovable, idiot redneck.  He’s all over this movie.

The plot moves at breakneck speed from the very beginning, and is full of more convoluted and contrived twists than I could count (which is to say, higher than 4).  They’re the kind of plot elements that feel like they would only confuse a child.  But I guess the little kids aren’t in it for the plot…they just wanna see the cars go vroom.

The story behind Cars 2 bears almost no resemblance to the first film, and just leaves you wondering why they even bothered putting these characters in it.  You know what, I’m getting ahead of myself here.  After all, there are a few nice things to be said about this movie.  I’m not a complete monster.

The Good:

  • The World- True to the spy movie genre, there’s a whole lot of globetrotting in this film.  We visit Japan, Italy, France, and England.  Each new place is fully realized, bright, vivid, and overflowing with things to look at.  The racetracks are much more interesting, now that they’re not circular Nascar tracks. They’re through cities, and towns, and mountains, letting the animators and designers really show their craft.  Moreover, the 3-D adds wonderful depth and texture to the settings.  Pixar really understand that 3-D is most effectively used when it creates an immersive world for the audience to feel like they’re entering this other world, rather than having it invade theirs.
  • Broader is Better?- To say that the first Cars spoke to a broader audience is actually a misstatement, I think.  It’s actually speaking to a very specific audience: Nascar fans.  Maybe their sensibilities are broader, but the fact is that film turns me off because  it focuses on a sport which I couldn’t care less about.  But you know what I love?  Action movies.  Who doesn’t love action movies?!  And I don’t know how many Bond movies you’ve watched recently, but most of them are pretty dumb.  But it doesn’t matter, because they’re lots of fun!  That’s how it feels watching Cars 2; it’s fun in the moment, as long as you try not to think too hard during that moment.
  • John Turturro- Is always great.  He puts on a funny Italian accent, and really seems to have the most appropriate amount of character and energy for his role.  Now that the comic relief (‘Mater) is the star of the film, they needed a new character to fill that void, and they nailed it with John Turturro’s Francesco Bernoulli.

The Bad:

  • Mater – The breakout star of the first Cars was its comic relief, Tow ‘Mater, voiced by Larry T. Cableguy.  But some one along the way must have misunderstood the function of a comic relief character when they insisted that he be the main character in this film.  That never works, and is exactly why spin-off films for auxiliary characters in kid movies usually end up going straight to video.  I can just hear the pitch meeting now:  ”Reports indicate that kids love him the most, and I quote, ‘because he farts.’  So he’s got to be at the center of this flick.  He should also fall in love with a pink car, so we can get the girls to buy some crap too.”
  • Toys - That’s all I see when I look at this movie.  It’s just a vehicle (get it?!?) for introducing a whole new bunch of plastic junk for your kids to buy.  The F-1 car, the rally car, the flying car, etc.  When I look at Marlin, from Finding Nemo, I see a concerned father.  Or when I look at Remy from Ratatouille, I see an artist struggling to gain recognition for his talents.  Or when I look at Woody from Toy Story, I see…well, I see a toy.  But he’s a toy with purpose, and friends, and feelings!  There is not one reason to like or care about any of the characters in this movie, because there’s almost no opportunities for them to display any admirable qualities.  The film is too caught up in its plot’s breakneck pace, so we’re just going to have to take them at their word when they tell us that Lightning and Mater are the best of friends.  And that’s why you need to buy both action figures.
  • WHERE ARE ALL THE PEOPLE?! - This is something I’ve never been able to get past.  Something about this universe has fried my suspension of disbelief circuits.  I just don’t understand why everyone is car, and more importantly, what happened to all the humans?  This is a world in which there are buildings, oil refineries, airports (the cars travel around in LIVING airplanes and boats, by the way), and stairs.  Why are there stairs anywhere on this planet?!
  • Pope Problem: There’s one particularly brain melting shot during the race in Italy, where they show that the Pope-mobile is in attendance…and he’s riding in an identical, larger, sentient, Pope-mobile-mobile.  This raises even more ridiculous questions:  First of all, WHY DO CARS NEED A POPE?!?  And if the Pope-Mobile-Mobile is secure, and identical to the Pope-mobile inside, why isn’t that just secure enough?  It’s still bullet proof, right?!  And why doesn’t the Car-God just prevent anything bad from ever happening to the Pope-Mobile?!  By the way, I often have that last thought about the regular Pope.
  • World: As far as I’m concerned, this world is just some kind of weird parallel dimension in which the Terminator actually came back and killed Sarah Connor while she was pregnant.  The machines took over the planet, killed all the humans, and then decided to build themselves as happy, adorable cars.  Then they found religion, apparently.

Overall:

Though they’ve managed to broaden the appeal beyond Nascar audiences, and create a more viscerally enjoyable film than the first one, Cars 2 remains Pixar’s weakest film.  But it doesn’t matter, because they’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Rating: 5/10

Cars 2 is in theaters June 24th!

Photo Gallery:

Trailer: