Pixar’s Cars was one of the studio’s biggest hits, right up there with Toy Story. So they can be forgiven for wanting to go back to the same well with Cars 2. Unfortunately it doesn’t play nearly as well as the first installment.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back in Radiator Springs after another successful season on the racing circuit. He’s intending to take a break and relax with his best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), but some ribbing by formula one racer Francisco Bernoulli (John Turturro) convinces him to join in the new World Grand Prix. This three-race series is sponsored by industrialist Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) as a way of promoting his new alternative fuel, Allinol. So with his regular crew on vacation, McQueen packs up an assortment of his Radiator Springs friends to hit the races.
Meanwhile, a shadowy cartel of lemons — Gremlins, Pacers, the coincidentally-named “Victor Hugo”, and the like — have their hands on the world’s largest untapped oil reserve out in the middle of the Pacific. They need to keep demand for gasoline high, and Allinol represents a threat to that. They’ve found that a well-placed electromagnetic pulse will cause an engine fueled by Allinol to explode, and they plan to use this at the races to ruin the fuel’s reputation. Opposing them are British spies Fin MacMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who mistake Mater for their American contact. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.
The opening sequence, I’ll admit, is really well-done, with the feel of a Connery-era Bond film opening. If Pixar fully went that route I think they could actually make a decent Bond-ish flick. Unfortunately after that it’s more like The Man Who Knew Too Little. The film’s take on Japan is also pretty great, but Paris, Rome, and London are all less than inspired. Across the board, the movie starts strong but runs out of gas too early.
And in large part the problem is that Cars 2 has no story to tell. Where the first movie actually had character development and plot, this one just wanders from one race-and-chase to another. If I wanted to watch cartoonish 3-D grand Prix racing I can go back to Speed Racer. The closest thing to a lesson seems to be that the boorish “ugly American” stereotype is actually everyone else’s problem to deal with rather than Mater’s to overcome by learning anything about the wider world. This lesson was evidently not lost on the parents talking back to and encouraging their noisy children rather than teaching them how civilized people behave in movie theaters and other public places.
Somewhat more troubling, though, is a message that’s only imparted in passing, and for which I should provide a spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph. It’s one thing to portray the opposition to alternative fuels as an international criminal cartel, but do we really need to teach kids that alternative fuel manufacturers themselves are also greedy miscreants peddling snake oil? One resident of Radiator Springs actually says in the denouement something to the effect of “Big Oil forever”. Is this Pixar’s position?
And of course, though this seems to be the twilight of 3-D, I have to mention how it fared. Not only couldn’t I notice it doing much good or bad, the color palette was notably muddy and muted. In fact, if I’d been able to conveniently schedule a 2-D showing I wouldn’t have even watched it in 3-D in the first place. By all means, if you do have a passel of McQueen-enthused kids to keep entertained, take them to a brighter, more colorful, and cheaper 2-D showing.
Worth It: no
Bechdel Test: fail.