Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jacobson, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, Franco Nero, David Hobbs, Patrick Walker, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Michel Michelis, Jason Isaacs, Lloyd Sherr, Bruce Campbell, Teresa Gallagher, Jenifer Lewis, Stanley Townsend, Velibor Topic, Sig Hansen, Guido Quaroni, Vanessa Redgrave, John Mainieri, Brad Lewisla, Cheech Marin, Jeff Gordon, Lewis Hamilton, Paul Dooley, Edie McClurg, Richard Kind, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, Michael Wallis
Written by: Ben Queen, based on a story by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, Dan Fogelman
Directed by: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 107
Date: 06/18/2011

Cars 2 (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After eleven artistically and financially successful features, Pixar has delivered their first dud with Cars 2. This is not to say that the new movie won't be a success. The company knew exactly what it was doing. The Cars franchise is arguably their most profitable in terms of merchandising, and people will rush out to see it, no matter what. But it's clear that Pixar's new movie is the first that has been motivated purely by business reasons rather than artistic reasons.

The same could be said of last year's Toy Story 3, except that the filmmakers managed to come up with a reason for that movie to exist, and created an emotionally satisfying work. Though Cars 2 looks spectacular, it fails on many levels. The first is the mistake of elevating the tow truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) to the lead, billed above even Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson). This is the equivalent of beefing up Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels.

I'm told that Larry the Cable Guy (a.k.a. Daniel Lawrence Whitney) is still popular as a live act in the Deep South, but in the world of movies, he was popular for about 5 seconds back in 2006. He's desperately unfunny, relying on creaky old "culturally-clueless" material that worked maybe 50 or 100 years ago, but seems more like a waste of time today. In an unfortunate accident of timing, he wound up with the part of Mater, and is now forever associated with Pixar's moneymaker, when his career should have been dead and gone. Just take a look at the rest of his movie career for proof: Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006), Delta Farce (2007), and Witless Protection (2008).

So a large percentage of the "humor" in Cars 2 is about Mater not understanding what's going on around him as he visits Japan, France, Italy, and England. In one sequence, he eats a pile of wasabi, thinking it's really Pistachio ice cream. What a hoot! And get this: he wonders why everyone in London drives on the "wrong side of the road." What comedy genius!

The rest of the humor is all about cars acting like humans, such as Mater riding on a plane with an inflatable pillow hooked around his cab, or a "mime car" performing on the streets of Paris. Which brings me to my second point: all of the other Pixar movies effectively establish the rules of their universes. In Toy Story, we know that the toys can come to life as long as humans are not around. The rules of Monsters, Inc. make perfect sense, as do those of Finding Nemo, etc. In the world of Cars, we have exact replicas of towns and cities and things built by humans, but there are no humans? Who built the cars, and how did the cars build all those cities with no opposable thumbs? Worse, there are occasional references to human and natural history (a mention of dinosaurs, etc.). It just doesn't make sense.

In short, I did not laugh once during Cars 2, whereas I laughed twice during the new "Toy Story" short film that preceded it, Hawaiian Vacation.

Now let's talk about the plot, which is centered around a half-hearted James Bond spy movie spoof. A British superspy, Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine), stumbles upon some kind of secret plan involving a huge oil dig in the middle of the ocean. It's connected directly to a new race, in which Lightning will take on the boastful Italian car Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro), both using a new kind of alternative fuel. An American spy car, 'Torque' Redline (voiced by Bruce Campbell) is supposed to pass some secret photos to McMissile, but he's compromised, and slips the photos to Mater.

And so Mater becomes a reluctant spy, along with McMissile, and agent Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who has left her desk for the first time to work in the field. Mater's homespun "wisdom" comes to his rescue each time, in another series of jokes that just do not work, and his new colleagues think he's a genius.

Meanwhile, Lightning and Mater have a fight -- based, of course, on Mater's idiocy -- and Lightning spends the rest of the movie moping about it. His races take a definite backseat to the sluggish spy story, and all the stuff about their friendship feels forced. I simply can't believe that Lightning and Mater would become best friends, and the movie has no evidence to support the idea, except for the characters simply saying it over and over again.

The subplot about sustainable alternative fuels could be a good idea, especially if we assume that Larry the Cable Guy's core, conservative fans will flock to this movie. But the movie even bungles that much. Without giving too much away, the evil plot is to make the alternative fuel look bad so as to drive people back to gasoline. But this plot is not driven by greed -- there's no indication that this "Cars" world even uses money -- but rather by revenge. The world's worst cars, Gremlins, Yugos, etc., are tired of being picked on and are doing this to earn the world's respect. Thus a thin joke nullifies a potentially useful idea.

There are good things about Cars 2. Somehow the busy John Lasseter is credited as director, his first time out on a feature film since the original Cars (his co-director is Brad Lewis, making his feature debut). And like the original Cars, the movie has a terrific sense of speed and weight and use of space. The races in particular are as exciting as ever. A roster of great voice actors (aside from Larry) helps lend some class to the production. In addition to Caine, Mortimer, Turturro, and Campbell, there's Eddie Izzard, Joe Mantegna, Franco Nero, Tony Shalhoub, Vanessa Redgrave, and others. Normally I'd add Wilson to this list, but his part has been gutted here, and his usual warm, goofy humor is gone.

But it all comes down to the notion that Cars 2 is purely a business venture with no soul, and the Cars universe was always a half-baked, one-joke idea. Most Pixar fans agreed that the original Cars was the weakest of the 11 features up to today, and now Cars 2 is ranked 12 of 12.

Note: Though the movie is rated "G," families should beware before taking young kids; there's lots of violence, guns, and death threats.

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