If Pixar could ever be said to have a red-headed stepchild it would be 2006’s Cars. Other studios would be doing backflips and buying self-congratulatory Variety ads if their tentpoles earned Cars’ 74% Rotten Tomatoes rating but for Pixar it represents an all-time low. Scan the positive reviews and you’ll notice they’re mostly filled with praise of the qualified kind as in “It’s no Toy Story or Incredibles but…”
So why bother with a sequel? Because even a studio of such vaunted artistic integrity as Pixar must occasionally bow to the dictates of the market: Cars may be among Pixar’s lesser-regarded and lesser-performing films (though a $461 million worldwide gross hardly constitutes failure) but it is astonishingly successful as a brand second only to the Toy Story franchise in its worldwide merchandising haul. The prospective numbers alone – Cars 2 is expected to outstrip Toy Story 3’s multi-billion-dollar retail sales tally – made another Cars installment all but inevitable.
That’s not to say Cars 2 is just some naked cash-grab. As the Toy Story follow-ups demonstrated Pixar and producer-director John Lasseter take their sequels seriously and never embark upon them without a plan that allows a reasonable chance at surpassing the original. And their plan in the case of Cars 2 calls for a wholesale overhaul.
The story begins with racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) now a four-time Piston Cup champion accepting a challenge by arrogant Italian Formula One racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) to compete against him in the World Grand Prix a series of races in Japan Italy France and England. But once Cars 2 arrives in Tokyo the setting of its first race the plot pulls an audacious switcheroo morphing into a rollicking spy thriller. (This is presaged by its opening sequence an elaborate take-off of classic Bond-movie prologues.) Lightning the hero of the first film retreats to the sidelines as the story shifts its focus to his dim-witted tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) who through a case of mistaken identity is thrust into the center of a conspiracy involving efforts to thwart a revolutionary alternative fuel called Allinol.
On the trail of the mysterious green-energy haters are British secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) the spitting image of 007’s iconic silver Aston Martin DB5 (actual brand names are for the most part avoided) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) a plucky purple roadster who believe Mater to be an American agent under deep cover. Fumbling toward gallantry his ignorance and clumsiness attributed to his elaborate disguise Mater’s arc echoes those of the protagonists in Being There and other works in which simpletons inadvertently elevated to positions of significance. Heroism it seems knows no IQ.
All told Cars 2 represents a solid upgrade – lighter quicker sleeker and brighter than the original model. Leaving the provincial confines of Radiator Springs the setting of the first film is a boon to the animators allowing them to showcase breathtaking 3D renderings of exotic skylines and cityscapes. The film boasts an earnest if artlessly conveyed pro-environmentalist message but I would hesitate to call it a message film. In fact it may be Pixar’s least-serious film to date: silly whimsical and crammed with one-liners and throwaway sight gags. It lacks the immense depth of feeling that characterizes more esteemed Pixar releases like Toy Story 3 or Up! but it's by no means hollow either. Those wishing for that old familiar Pixar profundity may simply have to accept that a world made up exclusively of anthropomorphized cars just isn’t conducive to it.
All of which suggests that Cars 2 is principally geared toward the audience’s younger and more distractible members who may lose track of the conspiracy plotline or fail to grasp its energy politics but will devour the rest of the film like a supercharged pixie stick. A handful of vehicles actually die in the film though never on-screen. The implied vehicular carnage probably won’t traumatize the little ones but it could prompt a few uncomfortable “Do cars go to heaven?” conversations.
Adults’ appreciation for Cars 2 may ultimately hinge on their respective tolerance for Mater’s bumbling redneck shtick and the film’s reliance (some might say overreliance) on fish-out-of-water/culture-clash humor. The comic tone of Cars 2 is about what you’d expect from a film in which Larry the Cable guy gets the lion’s share of the dialogue which is to say: exceedingly lowbrow. I tired of it shortly after the first act; your mileage may vary.
Set in a world inhabited only by motor vehicles Cars is sort of a cross between Michael J. Fox's Doc Hollywood and NASCAR. The main hero is a hotshot rookie race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson)--an obvious homage to the late fast-driving Steve McQueen--whose one goal in life is to win the Piston Cup and bask in fame and glory. Yet on his cross-country trip to the Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros (real-life legendary racer Richard Petty voices the reigning champion The King) Lightning finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy--and forgotten--Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There he meets its colorful denizens--including Sally (Bonnie Hunt) a snazzy 2002 Porsche who owns the local “rest” stop; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) the town’s rusty but trusty tow truck; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) a 1951 Hudson Hornet who rules the town with a steady hand er wheel. Together they all help the cocksure Lightning realize that there are more important things than trophies fame and sponsorship. If Pixar calls you come running so it isn’t at all surprising how impressive the Cars vocal line-up is starting with legendary screen icon Newman as the Doc. Come on being the race car driving nut that he is you think the 81-year-old actor would say no to voicing a 1951 Hudson Hornet who has his own mysterious past in the racing world? Hell no. The rest of the cast also seem to have a good time channeling their inner car from Wilson’s snarky speedster to Hunt’s cute and sexy Porsche a big-city lawyer who decides to get out of the fast lane. Supporting voices include Cheech Marin and Tony Shalhoub as Radiator Springs’ low-riding body shop and Italian Fiat tire shop owners respectively. Even George Carlin gets into the act as a groovy ‘60s VW wagon who sells “organic” fuel. Good stuff. Of course what Pixar flick would be complete without its comic relief? Although he’s no Ellen DeGeneres as a short-term memory impaired fish Larry the Cable Guy fills in nicely as the dim but sweet Mater the ultimate hick tow truck. Having been out of the directing loop since his 1999 sequel Toy Story 2 Cars marks Pixar’s golden boy John Lasseter return--and this is his big love letter to the splendor that is the automobile. Of course his demand for perfection took its toll. The animators had to come up with a new technique called “ray tracing ” which allows the car stars--that are metallic and heavily contoured--to credibly reflect their environments. Even with a sophisticated network of 3 000 computers and state-of-the-art lightning-fast processors that operate up to four times faster than they did on The Incredibles the average time to render a single frame of film was 17 hours. Still all that time spent pays off. Cars is a real visual treat with another firm grasp in storytelling. Sure it’s a bit of a vanity project and may shoot way over the kiddies’ heads making them squirm a little during the “slow” parts. But as one of the recently appointed top guns at Disney Lasseter can do just about anything he wants these days--and we are going to love it dammit.