The open road has been replaced by spy-movie shenanigans.
Face it, Cars is the black sheep of the Pixar library. It’s not that the film was a total dud – it’s actually quite fun – but it was missing that X-factor to make it truly memorable. But rather than deliver a cruise-controlled sequel, John Lasseter and his Pixar pit crew have double-clutched the franchise and left the town of Radiator Springs to travel across the globe in this tale of international intrigue. Yes, Cars 2 takes its cues from James Bond and other spy movies of its ilk. With lots of action involving cars, guns and daring escapes (move over Fast Five), this Pixar release is very rambunctious without the overwhelming artistry we’ve come to expect from films like WALL-E or Up (the opening sequence, at least). Which isn’t a good thing. A little artistry can go a long way.
In the 2006 release Cars, a film about anthropomorphized automobiles, the focus was on the open road, and how mega-lane highways have replaced such landmarks as Route 66. The sequel ditches the Americana overtones and switches gears to become an escapist joyride. Visuals aside, on the surface the story feels very perfunctory. Gremlins, Pacers, and other clunker cars are out to get revenge on high-speed roadsters and alternative fuels. British spy Finn McMissle (voiced by Michael Caine) and his associate, special operative Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), are out to stop them. Stuck in the middle is tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who is believed to be a special agent – his cover is dimwittedness, apparently.
John Lasseter, who is the head of Disney’s animation studio and put Pixar on the map directing its first three features (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2), must have a special kinship with automobiles that dates back to his youth. That would explain his direction of Cars, this sequel and a number of short adventures involving Mater. This time he populates the film with hundreds of international motorcars, including a Bond-style Aston Martin and Grand Prix racers.
It doesn’t take long to adjust to the story’s direction as the opening sequence has suave McMissile sneaking aboard an oil rig only to find himself on the defensive once he’s spotted by “Professor Z,” a monocle-wearing German car and his minion army of clunkers. The rest of the plot is strung together with jumper cables, in an attempt to rev viewer attentions. But the plot comes secondary to the action, which is very elaborate for an animated release; lots of car carnage going on.
Just like the first Cars, no humans are present at all. However, there is one throwaway line that could lead one to speculate that there were humans at one time. It’s in reference to dinosaurs. Not “dinocars” – think the old model Fords – but real dinosaurs. You could take that idea and turn it any number of ways including, as one fellow critic envisioned, Planet of the Apes but with automobiles. The cars have enslaved mankind, that’s why we never see them. It’s enough to drive one daffy.
You’re probably wondering about Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the role he plays in the sequel. He drives. And drives. And drives some more. McQueen’s role is so small that he almost seems like an afterthought. While Mater is embroiled in a case of mistaken identity, his lightning bolt racing friend is engaged in a trio of races, dueling against the Italian Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro’s best vocal inflection since playing Jesus in The Big Lebowski).
Pixar has had unparalleled success these last fifteen years with the eleven films it has released. Yet, Cars 2 is likely to leave viewers divided. It’s fun and a visual knockout, but the two Cars releases touch on themes that kids could care less about. A longing for the days of the open road and an argumentative case for better fuels, what kid has that on his mind? In repeat viewings of Cars I think back to what Matthew Broderick speaks to the camera in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as he breaks the fourth wall and address the viewing audience, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t slow down to look around every once in a while, you could miss it.”
Cars 2 doesn’t slow down. It’s loud and fast and visually stimulating. Explosions take the place of a nice drive in the country with Lightning McQueen and his car-girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). The sequel has two narrative threads, where the major story – the three-part race – happens off-screen at times. It’s a shame, too. John Turturro is so great as the overconfident formula racer that constantly teases Lightning McQueen to little avail.
The second narrative has Mater involved with espionage, sabotage and Wasabi. Though it’s never explained why Mater would want to eat Wasabi, which he thinks is pistachio ice cream (again, why the desire to eat ice cream?), audiences just have to go with it. Just like with the dinosaurs reference or any non sequitur that seems as out of place as a plain-clothes Waldo at a Where’s Waldo party. His subplot is so outrageous that when he finally meets up with McQueen again, even McQueen’s headlights give Mater a quizzical look, not fully understanding what’s going on.
So it depends on what you are more interested in seeing. Mater’s story takes up a huge chunk of animated real estate versus McQueen’s racing story. I will say that the voice acting is top notch across the board, with Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and Turturro the biggest standouts, and spotting the voice makes for a great guessing game. Just know that if you want to enjoy Cars 2 to the fullest you have to have a propensity to be able to stand Larry the Cable Guy’s voice for long stretches of time, and you have to leave logic out of the equation with what transpires on screen. If not you may drive home with a number of baffling questions that begin with “well how did…” bouncing in your head.
Director: John Lesseter Co-director: Brad Lewis Notable Vocal Cast: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin Writer(s): Ben Queen
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!