Director : Co- Brad Lewis
Screenplay : Ben Queen (story by John Lasseter & Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Michael Caine (Finn McMissile), Emily Mortimer (Holley Shiftwell), Eddie Izzard (Sir Miles Axlerod), John Turturro (Francesco Bernoulli), Brent Musburger (Brent Mustangburger), Joe Mantegna (Grem), Thomas Kretschmann (Professor Z), Peter Jacobson (Acer), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip), Franco Nero (Uncle Topolino), David Hobbs (David Hobbscap), Patrick Walker (Mel Dorado), Tony Shalhoub (Luigi), Jeff Garlin (Otis)
As all Pixar movies have since Toy Story in 1995, Cars 2 begins with the familiar Pixar Animation Studios logo, in which a bouncing desk lamp (a character that appeared in one of their earliest short films) bounces across the screen, turns, hops up and down on top of the I in Pixar, and then replaces it. The difference is that now the lamp’s bulb dissolves into a screen card that reads “Celebrating 25 Years,” reminding us that it was back in 1986 that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bought Pixar, then a computer graphics division of Lucasfilm Ltd., and soon transformed Pixar into one of the most successful movie studios of the modern era, with a track record of critically praised hit films (now numbering a dozen) that would be the envy of just about anyone past or present.
It is unfortunate, then, that Pixar’s silver anniversary is marked by the release of Cars 2, the company’s first non-Toy Story sequel and easily their weakest film to date, a spot that had previously been held by its predecessor. The first Cars, which was a long-time labor of love for director and Pixar honcho John Lasseter, wasn’t a bad film, but it was hobbled by the fundamental problem that automobiles are not easily anthropomorphized, and their resulting lack of physical expressiveness beyond their eyes and mouths made it hard to become emotionally involved with them. Richness of character is one of the hallmarks of Pixar’s films, and Cars had a notable lack of it. That problem was ameliorated somewhat by the film’s old-fashioned sweetness and nostalgia for an America that was more leisurely and contemplative, when getting somewhere was a journey, rather than a chore.
What an irony, then, that Cars 2 is in many ways the epitome of the fast-paced, superficial postmodernity that its predecessor bemoaned. Dropping all pretenses of nostalgia and charm, Cars 2 replaces reverence for an idealized past with gun battles and chase sequences in a subpar spy caper involving big oil companies trying to squelch the development of alternative fuels, a timely political topic that is treated with jackhammer subtlety. Screenwriter Ben Queen (working from an original story by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, and Dan Fogelman) takes the story out of Radiator Springs, the out-of-the-way burg that was the heart and soul of the first film, and sends us on a dizzying trip around the world as returning racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) competes in a trio of international races sponsored by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a billionaire Land Rover who is trying to sell the world on an alternative fuel called Allinall. His plans are being thwarted by a cadre of gas guzzlers and outdated clunkers led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) who are sitting on a huge oil reserve and want to make sure that gasoline remains the fuel of choice.
For most of the movie Lightning McQueen’s challenges on the racetrack (his primary nemesis is an Italian speedster voiced by John Turturro) take a backseat to the antics of Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the buck-toothed, accident-prone hillbilly tow truck whom Lightning takes with him on his round-the-world tour. After embarrassing McQueen with his backwoods ignorance, Mater is mistaken for an American spy by Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), two British secret agents who are trying to uncover Professor Z’s plans. The central joke is that Finn thinks Mater’s goofiness is just an elaborate cover, rather than his inherent state of being, which forces Mater to come to terms with the fact that most everyone around him thinks he’s a fool. Lasseter, who co-directed with Ratatouille producer Brad Lewis, tries to shoehorn in a feel-good message about just being yourself, but it is mostly lost amid all the explosions, which would have happened even if the cars themselves had had more personality. The action is certainly fast and furious, and at times it is quite clever, even as we recognize how derivative it is from decades of spy thrillers both serious and comical.
What Cars 2 does more than anything is highlight all the weaknesses of the central premise of a world in which cars live like we do. The problem is that, unlike all the other Pixar films, Cars takes place completely in its own universe, and that universe doesn’t make any sense (it, of course, looks fantastic, gleaming with almost unfathomable photorealistic detail). Not to get too literal here, but how exactly have these cars built a complete replica of our world--which here includes the neon gaudiness of downtown Tokyo, the medieval stonework of an Italian villa, and the familiar sights of London--when they not only lack opposable thumbs, but working appendages? The beauty of movies like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life (1998) and Finding Nemo (2003) is that they reimagine elements of our own world in a way that makes the familiar fantastical and funny and whimsical; after seeing those films, you can never look at a child’s doll or an anthill or a coral reef the same way again. The world of Cars 2, on the other hand, is just an exaggerated facsimile of our own, overly commercialized world, populated by talking autos whose grills have been replaced by teeth and whose windshields now house eyes, and all the technological wonder of its creation does little to hide the fact that it is built around a mostly empty core.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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