Film Review: Cars 2

Globe-spanning sequel to Pixar’s 2006 automative adventure is a visual treat, but has less to offer mature viewers than the studio’s recent top-of-the-line models.

Apart from the Toy Story trilogy and various follow-up shorts, Pixar has distinguished itself by constantly creating wholly original animated features. Cars 2 is that rare Pixar sequel, but you’d be mistaken to think it’s a retread of their folksy 2006 animated hit. No, this souped-up Cars edition trades the pastoral pleasures of Radiator Springs for globe-circling spy intrigue. James Bond’s Aston Martin would be right at home in the world of the 12th Pixar feature, which is visually dazzling but a decided letdown after the profound artistic achievements of the studio’s most recent movies.

The first Cars had its critics among Pixar devotees, but I was charmed by its Capraesque characters and its gorgeous evocation of a lost American highway culture. The new film will no doubt be a worldwide success, with its sensational depictions of Japan, Italy, France and England and its frenetic automotive action (guaranteeing a healthy afterlife at countless toy retailers). But, more than any other Pixar release including such kid faves as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, Cars 2 will appeal most to a child demographic—and that’s not the Pixar adults know and cherish.

The new film opens in literally unfamiliar waters, as sleek British spy car Finn McMissile (suavely voiced by Michael Caine) investigates a conspiracy at an ocean oil rig and narrowly escapes thanks to his submersible accessories. Following this action-packed prologue, we’re back in the desert town of Radiator Springs with racing star Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his slow-witted tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). A TV challenge from Italian racing champ Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) soon brings Lightning and Mater to Tokyo, the first leg in the World Grand Prix, a series of races organized by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a onetime oil baron who is promoting his new non-fossil fuel, Allinol.

The plot thickens when, during a pre-race party, Mater is mistaken by Finn and his beautiful operative Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) for an undercover agent brilliantly disguised as a rust-coated rube. The hapless tow truck finds himself at the center of a nefarious scheme to sabotage the World Grand Prix and discredit Sir Miles’ new alternative fuel.

The main emotional hook of Cars 2 is the rift that occurs between best friends Lightning and Mater after Mater’s bungling causes Lightning to lose the first race of the Grand Prix. Ultimately, the superstar racer comes to the conclusion that, despite Mater’s idiocy and incompetence (except in matters related to auto parts), his pal is just fine the way he is and should be prized for his simple, trusting nature. The movie’s embrace of the mentally challenged Mater is a far cry from The Incredibles’ less forgiving message that when everyone is deemed “special,” no one is.

Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Lawrence Whitney to his parents) is a funny standup comedian in the Jeff Foxworthy vein, but a little Mater here goes a long way. Director John Lasseter (who co-wrote the story for Ben Queen’s screenplay with Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman) clearly loves the guy, but Mater’s dominant star turn renders Cars 2 a distinctly lesser Pixar effort. The racing-buddies and espionage storylines simply don’t provide the resonance and stealth poignancy of films like Up and Toy Story 3.

There’s no faulting the visual craft here, however. Pixar always seems to outdo itself from film to film, and the travelogue aspects of Cars 2 are a knockout, from the blazing neon colors of its Tokyo, to a Les Halles spare-parts bazaar in Paris, to an eye-poppingly beautiful Italian Mediterranean city called Porto Corsa. (As Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon might say, “I want to go to there.”) The action and fight scenes, too, are excitingly staged, enhanced by the depth of 3D.

Cars 2 will certainly entertain the young and satisfy a wide international audience. The rest of us must simply bide our time till the next Pixar masterpiece.