by Tim Ross
In 2006, Pixar Animation Studios introduced “Cars” to thousands of movie-goers, but it was a personal story for director John Lasseter. His father sold muscle cars in the ’70s and ’80s, and in 2000 Lasseter took a summer-long trip along U.S. Route 66 that deeply affected him and introduced him to an iconic American landmark.
“Cars 2” is not personal in the same way, but it did grow out of that same experience. Lasseter had animated a scene in “Cars” in which Lightning McQueen takes Sally to the drive-in and a spy movie is playing in the background. The scene was ultimately cut but the idea of a spy movie with cars stuck with Lasseter and this film is the result.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the film is that it’s so different from the original. Hollywood pumps out a lot of sequels these days and they’re often little more than extensions of the film that came before. “Cars 2” could hardly be accused of piggybacking on the original, which is both an asset and a liability.
There are a host of new characters, an entirely new storyline and a plot that involves Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and super spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) as much or more than it does Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).
McQueen aims to test his mettle against the fastest cars in the world so he invites Mater to crew with him in a series of World Grand Prix races. Not long after their arrival on foreign shores, Mater gets caught up in a spy plot that unfolds with as much action as the races McQueen is trying to navigate with little or no help from his friend.
This wealth of new characters adds new, talented voices but also lends to an overfull plot.
John Turturro brings his usual funny edge to the role of a cocky, Italian Formula 1 car, Francesco Bernoulli. Caine has a blast as McMissile. Perhaps Caine always wanted a turn as James Bond and he’s making the most of a similar chance. Eddie Izzard, Emily Mortimer, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna and even NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon appear as a whole garage full of new characters.
Despite the influx of new voices and the brilliant animation, “Cars 2” lacks the heart and personal connection the original story had. “Cars” was about Americana and “Cars 2” glorifies international travel. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that, but feels as if Lasseter is just not on home turf. The origin for nearly every Pixar film involves a personal connection behind the stories they bring to life. “Cars 2” seems more like fabricating a story and less like hanging out and telling one the way its predecessors have.
Having said that, it’s still a beautiful film to look at and the usual Pixar attention to detail is in full order. The bad guys are Gremlins, Yugos and Pacers, some of the more vilified cars in automotive history. Every design detail of every vehicle is fastidiously drawn and the one-line jokes come fast, furious and relentless. Unfortunately, Lasseter and screenwriter Ben Queen fall a bit too much in love with the one-liners and fail to avoid the potty jokes that are the staple of lesser films.
“Cars 2” is a heck of a ride, but not one that values the notion of forgetting the destination and focusing on the journey, which was the charm of the original “Cars.” Given Pixar’s track record for great sequels it’s a bit of a surprise, but given Lasseter’s penchant for making his films from personal and heartfelt source material, perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Grade: 2/4 stars