Cars 2 belongs to the “Oh, The Hell With It” school of sequels, in which the follow-up to a fairly straightforward original film goes a little nuts in the plot department, putting familiar characters in a ridiculously unfamiliar environment. Weekend at Bernie's II comes to mind here, as does Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time. It doesn’t speak well of Cars 2 that it invites comparisons to such abysmal crap-fests, but truth be told John Lasseter’s follow-up to the financially successful but relatively unpopular original Cars is an improvement on the original. It may be the worst Pixar film in five years (since Cars, incidentally), but it’s more entertaining than the first film despite the bland protagonists and the usual weirdness that seems to accompany the franchise’s whole conceptualization.
With Lightning McQueen’s character arc officially resolved after the events of the first Cars, it falls to Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater to carry the film this time out. He’s McQueen’s black sheep best friend, a clichéd dopey hillbilly with a big heart who gets swept up in international intrigue after superspies Finn McMissile (Sir Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake him for an American agent. It seems the evil Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) has a dastardly plot to sabotage McQueen’s next race and discredit a new environmentally friendly fuel invented by industrialist Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) in the process. Mater has to overcome his social awkwardness and implausible ineptitude to save the day, get the girl and preserve his friendship with the increasingly humiliated McQueen (Owen Wilson).
The original film’s dedication to generic Americana takes a back seat this time out to a decidedly British superspy storyline, but it never disappears entirely and the contrast is jarring at best. Whenever Michael Caine’s avatar takes center stage Cars 2 really shines, as the nifty gadgets, car chases (or is that foot chases, since nobody’s driving) and spy movie gimmicks have an refreshing energy to them. A thrilling opening sequence sets the stage for action and despite the still absurd premise of these movies (where the heck are the human beings, anyway?) the film nevertheless creates an entertaining “Boys With Toys” mentality. If we ever get a Cars 3 I anticipate a Monkey Island 2-type twist ending in which we discover that all the previous films were just in the imagination of Andy from the Toy Story movies, playing with his Hot Wheels. However, the laid-back “friends forever” sentiments of the original film pop up repeatedly, and the pacing lags whenever that happens. It’s particularly distracting whenever the soundtrack segues from Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score to lame covers of songs like “You Might Think” by The Cars from a particularly uninspired Weezer, milquetoasting an otherwise distinctive tone in an unfortunate attempt to tie this more exciting sequel to the bland and fairly inert style of the original Cars.
The real question here is does anybody over the age of 10 actually care about Mater as a person (car, whatever)? He’s a comic relief sidekick at best, and never overcomes that stigma throughout Cars 2. Given the dopey lead character and flighty plotline it’s tempting to write Cars 2 off as children’s entertainment – and indeed as mere children’s entertainment it excels – but Pixar has never really been in the business of pandering to kids. To date they’ve exerted most of their energy making movies that appeal to all audiences but just happen to have obvious appeal to younger demographics. All the previous Pixar efforts have touched upon greater human emotions or social themes, but despite a token effort to incorporate the energy crisis Cars 2 is a fairly soulless experience riddled with tired conventions. An incredibly distracting last-minute “suicide bomber” plot point threatens to make Cars 2 a little more interesting than it appeared at first glance, but of course eventually even that boils down to familiar platitudes about friendship overcoming all odds. Yawn.
Cars 2 is a snazzy little flick but it’s messy and lacks even the thematic ambition of its limp predecessor, let alone the infinitely superior Pixar films that preceded and followed it. It’s a better entertainment experience than the first Cars but not a particularly good film unless you really love explosions, tired feel-good subplots and ubiquitous car puns (they gamble with fuzzy dice, which is actually pretty funny). It’s prettier in IMAX and the 3D is so good that you don’t even notice that it’s in 3D, which is a mercy. I suppose it’s nice that John Lasseter got another Cars out of his system so Pixar can focus on more interesting stuff in the future. If nothing else, it’ll be a fun change of pace to see somebody else win the Best Animated Feature Oscar this year.
Crave Online Rating: 7/10