Saying you don’t like a Pixar film is akin to saying you hate sunshine, chocolate ice cream, and Santa Claus.
But there’s no dodging the fact that Cars 2 is a low point for Pixar. The new film is by no means a wreck; the Pixar brain trust is far too smart and has too much quality control to allow that to happen.
But this is an unnecessary sequel and marks, by far, the biggest disappointment from the animation studio that once upon a time set the standard for children’s features, with an unblemished reputation built on quality and originality.
What happened? Well, to begin with Cars 2 is a vehicle built around lovable tow-truck Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy), a country bumpkin who was the comic-relief of the first film. Now he’s been pushed as the star.
He’s still the best friend of hot-shot racing car Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), who has returned to the small desert town of Radiator Springs, where Mater lives, for some rest and fun after dominating the race circuit. That changes once Mater defends his buddy’s honor to an egotistical Italian Formula One race car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), who is bad-mouthing McQueen for not competing in a trio of world grand prix races in Japan, Italy, and England.
The races are being put on by a billionaire carturned environmentalist Sir Miles Axlerod (voice of Eddie Izzard), who is anxious to promote his alternative fuel by powering all the race cars entered in the grand prix. After Francesco taunts Mater, McQueen takes exception and agrees to join the race to show up his rival.
But the racing is a minor part of the film. The bulk of the plot is devoted to Mater unwittingly being mistaken for an American secret agent, who is teaming with British intelligence to infiltrate and stop a sinister group of Pintos, Gremlins, and other outcast cars who have plans to corner the world's oil market. Their evil scheme involves the races as well, as the group plans to sabotage Sir Miles Axlerod's push for alternative fuel by destroying the cars competing in the grand prix.
The spy caper story line allows Mater to play heroic dolt, which means the burden of carrying Cars 2 is mostly on Larry the Cable Guy and his folksy, everyman humor delivered in a friendly redneck drawl. The film is built on Mater the American rube in unfamiliar foreign elements, such as mistaking wasabi for pistachio ice cream, and being confused by the reverse rules of the road in Britain. In small doses Mater can be funny -- see the first Cars -- but these familiar gags and his accent wear thin through much of a 113-minute movie, not too mention that he just isn't that interesting a character to build a movie around.
Sarge, the Toledo-based Jeep character, again voiced by Paul Dooley, also makes a brief return appearance.
The best characters are the newest additions: the suave Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine), a British super agent with a clever gadget for every occasion, and his tech-handy counterpart Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer), as well as some of the James Bond-like super villains, including the devious monocle-wearing Professor Z (voice of Thomas Kretschmann). Cars 2 is best when it's a clever spy spoof, and Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell are so different from what we've seen on screen, as well as interesting and entertaining, it's a pity that a movie wasn't structured around them instead.
The most memorable sequence in Cars 2, in fact, is after Finn's infiltration of a giant offshore drilling platform operated by the evil cars. When Finn is discovered, his breathtaking escape -- beautifully rendered in zippy camera angles and gorgeous animation -- provides the best five minutes of summer movie action thus far.
What Cars 2 lacks in a clever story it delivers in the most sumptuous visuals yet from Pixar. The race sequences are spectacular, and the background renderings of London during a chase sequence are photo-realistic. Cars 2 sets a new standard for CG animation. This is also one of those rare movies where 3-D is a welcome addition to the film.
But that's not enough.
Cars 2 is slick in all the wrong places; stunning to watch, but with little substance to merit more than a passing glance -- certainly not when held to the high standard of Pixar's previous work such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monster's Inc., and Up.
Cars already was the weakest link in Pixar's strong lineup of Oscar-winning, and crowd and critic-pleasing hits. Cars 2, then, is the straight-to-DVD sequel -- the kind that became Disney's financial lifeblood and ruined its reputation -- and is only playing in theaters because of the lure of merchandising.
For nearly two decades, audiences have had an unwavering belief in Pixar as the standard bearer of unsurpassed excellence in feature animation. Once upon a time, so did I.
Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis. Screenplay by Ben Queen. A Pixar Animation Studios release opening Friday at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, Fox Theatre, and Sundance Kid Drive-In. Rated G. Running time: 113 minutes.
Critic's rating: * *
Lightning McQueen ......... Owen Wilson (voice)
Mater .......... Larry the Cable Guy (voice)
Finn McMissile .......... Michael Cane (voice)
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com or 419-724-6734.