Cars 2 (G)
24/01/14 21:16 Filed in: 2001
Directed by: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Starring: Owen Wilson
Celebrating 25 years of animation excellence, Pixar Studios has never released a dud—a truly astounding achievement. In fact, the closest they’ve ever come to producing a flop was the commercially successful but critically tepid Cars (2005). So then, why would the studio green-light a sequel to the worst received film in its catalog rather than its most successful—you know, the one with the clown fish?
The easy answer is marketing—Cars merchandise is everywhere…on clothing and pillow cases, on cracker boxes and soup labels and especially on shelves in the toy aisle. Cars paraphernalia is ubiquitous and the drop in sales since the first film exited theaters is negligible to the point of imperceptibility. Sad to say, but as long as the marketing machine is at full throttle, even mediocre box office returns from any future sequels will still be considered a success.
So with nothing to loose and bank to make, Lasseter and Co. have reunited us with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a host of new and returning characters (all of which, you can bet, will have at least one toy car manufactured in their likeness) in Cars 2. Leaving behind the cozy confines of Radiator Springs, the story soon takes us on a globetrotting adventure that’s part racing film and part Bond-esque spy thriller where Mater is mistaken for an undercover agent (huh?). The action kicks into high gear when the characters are whisked away on a foreign tour for the World Grand Prix.
The film’s premise seems like a sure-fire winner, but large sections of the film just feel off—like the timing of a car in desperate need of a tune-up. One key contributor to this cinematic vapor lock is the inner-cutting between the race and espionage subplot. The actual race is upstaged and overshadowed by the international intrigue for most of the film, making it difficult to actually enjoy or even care about the race itself, which becomes ancillary to the spy action sequences. This narrative tug o’ war is tiring and jarring. Further, McQueen plays second horn to Mater for most of the movie (notice that Larry has top billing over Owen in the end credits).
The espionage plot itself is intended as a nod to the James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises, but unwittingly degenerates into a derivative spoof. Michael Caine is predictably masterful as mega-spy Finn McMissile and probably should’ve had his own film. In the same way that the spy plot dominates the racing plot, McMissile is more of a hero in the film than McQueen. Has the “Mc” mantle been passed on for the next, inevitable sequel?
The movie’s commentary on oil vs. a fuel alternative (Allinol) is by turns heavy-handed and OPEC, I mean opaque, and ultimately fails to say anything meaningful on the subject. Monsters Inc. subtly addressed the energy crisis of the early 2000s while WALL-E harrowingly forecasted the dangers of consumerism run amok. By contrast, Cars 2 breaches the topic of our dependency on fossil fuels and then quickly abandons it, hit-and-run style.
Equally irritating is the film’s vacillation with respect to lemon cars—one minute we’re supposed to pity them, like Mater’s rust bucket fan, Otis, and the next we’re supposed to despise them, like the nefarious henchmen who “kill” cars because they’re rich and famous. Even when confronted with the error of their ways, the Lemon Mafia refuses to change, much to their demise. Unrepentant evil is pretty rare in Pixar movies (Syndrome is one notable exception), and sets a poor example and precedent, especially since the plight of lemon cars could’ve set up a heartfelt moral—you know, the kind Pixar normally capitalizes on for maximum emotional effect. The only meaningful moment here is the analogy between dents and momentous events of the past, a very understated theme that Lasseter should’ve gotten more dramatic mileage out of.
So, has Cars 2 broken Pixar’s perfect track record? Opinions will vary, but there can be no doubt that if fails to measure up to the studio’s stellar back catalog. The movie mishandles nearly every narrative turn and takes the original conceit of talking cars (and now ships, jets, trains, etc) to absurd extents. As such, the film has effectively scrapped credibility while abandoning the heartwarming character moments that aided in our suspension of disbelief during the first outing.
In one of the movie’s rare racing scenes, McQueen moves outside and allows chief rival Francesco Bernoulli to take the inside track to victory. In the same way, Cars 2 has pulled over onto the shoulder, allowing any other decent animated film the chance to play spoiler in this year’s race for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. There’s always the Piston Cup as a consolation prize, I suppose. As painful as it is to admit, Pixar has fallen off the pace.