Cars 2 is quite a Cartoon...
but could use a Car Tune Up!
And this, of course, brings us right up to the starting line of Cars 2, the sequel to 2006's wildly successful and wonderfully handled Cars (as if the number in the title doesn't tell you that in and of itself, sports fans)!
The real shocker here is that Cars 2 might just be the closest thing to Pixar's first misfire. That's not to say that it isn't good. In fact, by the standards of most any animation studio, Cars 2 would be quite a fine film. By Pixar standards, however, the engine misses and we most assuredly need a little maintenance... maybe a 52 point inspection... perhaps an oil change... but just a little bit less of that tow truck!
So what in the name of the ever lovin' Black and White Checkered Flag happened? I mean, it's still Pixar, right? It's still John Lasseter directing (with co-director Brad Lewis), right? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, whereas Cars featured Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as a hotrod rookie racecar whose myopic arrogance costs him victories but manages to bring him right back down to Earth due to the small town charm of Radiator Springs, Cars 2 widely eschews the small-town for something more akin to the whole wide world. Meanwhile the encapsulated simple life of Cars gives way to (and I'm not kidding here) a globe-trotting SPY THRILLER, relegating "Star" Lightening McQueen to supporting status as his own race is stolen right from under his tires by none other than his comic sidekick "Tow" Mater (played by Dan "Larry the Cable Guy" Whitney in his only likeable role).
Yes, this is Mater's show, as the adorable and sleek Cars travel well beyond Radiator Springs into the wider world of sports, surrounding the first ever World Grand Prix, which keeps Lightening Busy while Mater, somehow, gets embroiled in an international espionage plot straight out of a James Bond spoof. Yeah, man, that's complete with Michael Caine as international British SUPER Secret Agent Finn McMissile (an Aston Martin DB5, no less) and the automotive equivalent of a "Bond Girl" in Emily Mortimer's Holly Shiftwell!
And the story keeps getting bigger and bigger, losing the heart and smart that makes up most every pixar film in favor of constantly one-upping the ante to overload the film with admittedly impressive visuals, but not enough substance beyond the incredibly stylish surface. Eventually this all-inclusive approach includes the other characters that helped make the first film such an instant classic, like Lizzie (Katherine Helmond), Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), The Sheriff (Michael Wallis), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Guido (Guido Quaroni), Ramone (Cheech Marin), Flo (Jennifer Lewis) and even Mack (John Ratzenberger). Sadly, each and every one of these end up as little more than cameo appearances, with less screen time than the ostensible main character, Lightening McQueen. They've even recast Fillmore with Lloyd Sherr (missing an obvious chance to reunite Cheech with Chong)
Yes, yes, folks, this is most assuredly Mater's movie, in spite of the super-charged additions of new editions like Eddie Izzard, Jason Issacs, Thomas Kretschmann, Joe Mantegna, Peter Jacobson, Vanessa Redgrave and even Bruce Campbell!
That's the issue, though... by centering the focus around Larry the Cable Guy's Mater, by definition a comic relief sidekick character, the film loses focus with no central main character to root for. Here we get a sidekick with no hero, comic relief searching for tension in need and way more Larry the Cable Guy than can be consumed with him remaining endearing as Mater.
So let's see... A central focus on Mater, an over-the-top story with super charged magic centering in no small part around Tokyo (or, as they call it, "Towkyo")? Hasn't Cars 2 been done before?
Let me answer that for you... yeah... yeah it has... and by Pixar, no less, with largely the same cast in a short film called Tokyo Mater! Yeah, kids, the short film that made Mater the star, relegated Lightening McQueen to silly second fiddle status and featured Mater's Sci-Fi upgrades and mega-extreme big-city empowering has been upgraded and re-pimped for the big screen in a fuller length and higher status!
To be fair, the film still looks incredible! There is absolutely nobody in the business who can create animation like Pixar. It's impossible to imagine this world of living, malleable metal in real life with expressive, realistic faces coming off as this realistic, but Pixar does it... to the point that on occasion it almost seems like you can reach in and touch the props. That is truly amazing and Lasseter is still outdoing himself on the visuals. This time, however, I'm surprised to note that Lasseter, now the head of the "Imagineers" at Disney, has forgotten how to make a fantastic story to go with these incredible visions. For all that it is and all that we see, Cars 2 is definitely a good film... but this is, after all, a Pixar Film... this should be an unquestionably GREAT film!
The thing that makes Pixar great isn't the animation. Though they're the absolute best at what they do, without question, but what they do is much more than just Computer Generated Imagery... it's great storytelling. The storytelling of Up, Wall*E, Toy Story and even Cars is only echoed in Cars 2... enough to make it good, but not quite great... and worth somewhere around Three Point Five or Four Stars out of Five! Repeated viewings might bring more to the finish line on this rare less-than-perfect entry into Pixar's canon of classics. As it stands, it's a fun flick, but doesn't quite win the race, kids! This is the first Pixar Feature I've given less than the full five stars to and the first pixar feature to be outshined by its lead in short (this time the very cool Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation). Still, kids, a misfire for Pixar still outshines and outruns most winners from other studios. So, kiddos, I'll see you sports fans at the finish line of the NEXT REEL!
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