It seems inconceivable, but for the first time, the Disney/Pixar team has made a movie that misses the mark. I never thought I’d be writing these words. For sixteen years now, they’ve produced nothing but quality entertainment, and that’s not the kind of track record you come across every day. The Toy Story films were bright, imaginative, and fun. A Bug’s Life was cute and colorful. The Incredibles was energetic and engaging. Finding Nemo was heartfelt and beautifully rendered. WALL-E and Up were masterpieces that redefined the standard for animated films. Now we have Cars 2, which is serviceable at best as a generic 3D cartoon comedy. It’s saturated with vivid colors, it tells a lot of family-friendly jokes, and the action sequences are plentiful, but it’s all superficial. Unlike the previous films, this one lacks heart.
The original Cars was a charming film, mostly in the way it anthropomorphized automobiles and other vehicles. In this alternate universe, human beings didn’t exist. Neither did insects; one of my favorite shots in the first film revealed them to be tiny Volkswagen Beetles with wings. That same sense of playfulness is present in Cars 2. The issue is that it’s at the mercy of a plot which is little more than James Bond movie crossed with an extended installment of Mater’s Tall Tales, a series of shorts you could sometimes see in theaters and on The Disney Channel. Since the events of the first film, sports car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has won the coveted Piston Cup, a racing award, four times in a row. Upon returning to the quaint desert community of Radiator Springs, he reunites with his best friend, the tow truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).
An announcement is made for the first ever World Grand Prix. The favorite to win is an Italian F1 racecar named Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro), who boasts nonstop about how much faster he is than McQueen. This, coupled with Mater’s enthusiasm, prompts McQueen to take part in the Grand Prix; in no time, they’re both cruising down the neon-drenched streets of Tokyo, where the first of the races will take place. It’s here that McQueen begins to feel embarrassed by Mater, who’s just too … American. It’s also here that Mater is mistaken as a spy and drawn into a covert mission. Here enters Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer), British secret agents; they’re tracking the whereabouts of the evil Professor Zündapp (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann), who’s taking orders from an unknown operative hell bent on automotive duds such as Gremlins and Yugos reigning supreme.
Somehow connected to this dastardly plot is an oil tycoon named Miles Axlerod (voiced by Eddie Izzard), who’s not only sponsoring the World Grand Prix but is also promoting a new form of renewable fuel. The potential for topical humor was not taken as far as it could have gone, which is puzzling given how successful WALL-E was at sending a message about waste management, recycling, and a healthy lifestyle. The only real message one can derive from Cars 2 is that of friendship, which is nice, if monumentally derivative. All that’s left are spectacularly renders views of Tokyo, Italy, and London, and frenetic action sequences involving either racing or fantasy spy gadgets. The action is competent, although it’s hard to really appreciate it since car chases can so easily be created in a computer. Can you say the same thing about a live action car chase?
To be fair, there are many individual moments that are pleasant and funny. There’s a hilarious moment, for example, in which Mater finds himself in a Tokyo bathroom and is gob smacked by the sophisticated Japanese toilets (or, more accurately, the automotive equivalent of toilets, which are really just mechanics’ garages crossed with car washes); he watches a puffy-eyed cartoon on a TV monitor giggle with glee as it demonstrates the use of a bidet. And there are loving references to James Bond with the design of McMissile, inspired by the Aston Martin DB5; he’s equipped with all manner of spy gear, from missiles in his exhaust pipe to bombs in his hubcaps to tether lines in his undercarriage. He can even morph himself into a boat and a submarine.
What’s disappointing is that all the technical efforts were applied to a story that anyone can tell. This film could have been an animated spy comedy with human characters, and it would have had more or less the same effect – minus, of course, the tiresome practice of turning names into automotive puns. It might have even worked as a live-action film, although the 3D would have been less effective. Not that it was all that effective in this case. A dream sequence is the only instance in which the process added something extra; the action scenes were a series of quick cuts, so when any close images zooms through the shot, all we see is a blur of motion. Because of Pixar’s track record, I’m confident that Cars 2 is not the beginning of a trend but merely a slight misstep. I anxiously await their next release.