Following a pinnacle year with the critical darling Toy Story 3, the creators at Pixar Animation Studios return in their 25th year with a sequel, a rare thing for them, and probably for good reason. The original “Cars” is widely considered as one of Pixar’s weakest, so the very fact that director John Lasseter chose to pursue a “Cars 2” is a strange move indeed. Possibly the team at Pixar were looking to make right their original misstep or simply capitalize on the Car’s immense merchandising success. The franchise started with a shaky foundation, and attempting to build upon it can only result in limited success.
This time around, the film doesn’t begin at the racetrack, but in a much darker locale where British Intelligence agent Flinn McMissile (Michael Cane) is involved in a top secret mission. What follows is the most outrageous chase scene produced with flawless animation. Only a few moments later, are we transported to the abundantly more reserved backdrop of cozy Radiator Springs to be reunited with the endearing rusty tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). It quickly becomes evident that this is to be Mater’s story, and his best friend race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) will be taking a backseat for this international journey. When McQueen returns to Radiator Springs to take a break from racing, Mater wastes no time finding a reason for him to join the globe-trotting World Grand Prix. Upon their arrival in Japan, good ‘ol Mater accidentally runs into the aforementioned Flinn McMissile and fellow agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Before he knows it, the entire fate of the World Grand Prix and Lightning McQeen’s safety rests squarely on Mater’s ability to overcome his own shortcomings.
To be honest, the movie’s storyline is not overwhelmingly weak. Instead, it is the individual elements that lessen its overall potency. Mater as the leading character tends a whole lot of fun, sometimes touching, but begins to feel like a worn out idea by the film’s third act. The constant flow of car puns and slapstick humor will certainly make children howl with laughter, but may test their older counterparts’ patience after the first 45 minutes. Although I found myself amused, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot of what I was hearing would be much more fitting in any other non-Pixar animation. The dialogue accomplished the task, but lacked sincerity and tact. All the supporting characters felt pushed to the side to focus uninterrupted attention squarely on Mater’s journey. Sadly, Lightning McQueen suffered the greatest shunning as he was only there to fill in the friend character and provide a visual feast with his racetrack antics. Surprisingly, the most interesting addition to the story is the ultra suave daredevil Flinn McMissile and his female equivalent Holley Shiftwell. Their presence gives the story nearly enough balance to diffuse some of the Mater centrism.
No matter how short Pixar sold themselves in many areas of “Cars 2,” there is no chance they would skimp in the technical categories. “Toy Story 3” was their greatest accomplishment to date, and the beauty of “Cars 2” rivals or even exceeds that film. It is hard to imagine any two things made more perfectly for one another than cars and animation. In this sequel, the Cars universe is expanded so far beyond the boundaries of automobiles. Every living organism that is present is somehow, and usually comedically, interpreted and brought to life. There were moments when I found myself entirely in awe of the grandeur of the animation. Every subtle reflection, rush of color, the rays of light refracting off the cars’ surfaces, and even the rhythm objects captivated me. So immersive, the line between animation and reality became nearly indistinguishable.
The depth that graces other Pixar films appears to be an afterthought in this tale, which is a disappointment considering how many opportunities the story offered for genuine growth. With previous Pixar films, one has come to expect a certain emotional journey that is applicable even more so to adults than it is to children. In “Cars 2,” the lessons of friendship and self-worth that Mater discovers seem, well, uncharacteristically simplistic and childish for a film carrying the Pixar name. The only time the movie arrives anywhere close to an authentic revelation comes when Mater explains to Holley that he never repairs the dents he gets on his body, because each represents a specific time when he and Lightning McQueen shared a memorable experience together. But unfortunately, this tiny gem is lost somewhere among the film’s more meaningless action sequences and uncontrolled bursts of humor.
“Cars 2” does not fall completely into the realm of disappointment, but comes dangerously close. Pixar has rightly set a precedent for themselves that no other studio can touch. Improvement is good, but it can never replace excellence. In the case of the Cars franchise, the team at Pixar fail to meet their own standards. Prior to the movie, a trailer for Pixar’s next big project played to the wild delight of the audience. By the end of “Cars 2,” I couldn’t help but wish it was already 2012, and I was watching “Brave,” not a film that felt more like a placeholder than a well-oiled machine.