Maybe this is a good time to talk about expectations. Pixar, the company of swollen-brain geniuses who brought you the “Toy Story” franchise, “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Monsters, Inc.,” has a reputation to protect. When they misstep, as they have with “Cars 2,” released today, it’s a bit like catching the Glee concert when Lea Michele has a sore throat. It’s not pretty, but it’s better and more exciting than anything you’d hear at the bar down the street. They’re in a whole other league.
“Cars 2” is really Mater’s story. The rusty tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) from the first movie considers himself Lightning McQueen’s best friend. He tootles along in the backwater (actually back desert as there is no water) of Radiator Springs, watching the sleek racing car on TV and rooting for him all the way. When McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) returns home for a visit, his sweetheart Sally cajoles him into taking Mater along on a big race. Sadly, Mater’s down home ways don’t mesh well with the sleek environment of Japan’s hoity-toity car circles. McQueen isn’t sure Mater fits in the international car scene.
There’s more afoot (a-tire?), however. A wealthy do-gooder has created a new eco-friendly fuel, Allinol. He sponsors a series of races to prove how effective it is. McQueen happily goes along – he’s a pro-environment kinda car after all – with the added benefit of hoping to show down a smart-talking Italian race car named Francesco Bernoulli. Meanwhile, a pair of British intelligence agents (think James Bond’s Aston Martin without Bond)are drawn to the same races. They’re on the trail of a shadowy syndicate of dastardly do-badders. They mistake Mater for an American agent and induct him into their cloak and dagger schemes.
The worst thing about this movie, echoing the original “Cars” in this sense, is its preachiness. Allinol saves the environment, we’re told. Presumably it consists of unicorn sweat and fairy boogers. The bad guys, as expected, are connected to oil concerns. One character even intones, with a sad shake of the head, “Once Big Oil, always Big Oil.” It’s the old fantasy of greedy gas companies keeping the lid on miraculous alternate fuels which will allow us to zoom along at 73 MPH while metaphorically snuggling polar bears in Alaska. Besides being fantasy, it’s a lot of guilt and worry to lay on kids who just want to see talking cars race each other and make jokes.
The film has other weaknesses as well. The characters don’t develop past where we left them in the last film, giving the movie less heart than we expect. Contrast that to the sublime enrichment of Woody, Buzz, and the gang in “Toy Story 3,” who only became more powerful as the franchise went on. The spy storyline is fun but a little tired. It also introduces car death, with cars sinking and being crushed and tires floating to the surface like little tar air bubbles. Because the car world Pixar created is so rich, the car deaths feel like real death and may be disconcerting for children.
The richness, however, is just what puts Pixar (owned by Disney since 2006) in another league. Everything, from the Reliant Robin that overturns in France to the Japanese Toyotas with anime features, is carefully thought out. The cars in the stands at the Towkyo (cute play on Tokyo) race are completely different than in Europe. In London, Minis take over. We even get a nod to the Queen and her grandson Prince Wheeliam. The humor also works nicely, as when Mater gets more than enough perky sanitation in an high-tech Japanese bathroom.
The animation is rich and vivid, the car races exciting. Don’t spring for the 3D because it doesn’t add anything to the movie and makes some scenes darker.
The Pixar attention to detail and snappy writing keep the movie enjoyable despite the lack of a good plot or emotional high point. Rated G, audiences won’t find anything inappropriate for kids, except perhaps the alternate fuel propaganda woven throughout the film.
You’ll have fun, just not as much fun as the Pixar name on the ticket would suggest.