Review: Pixar's Latest Sequel 'Cars 2' Proves That Giants Can Stumble
by Jeremy Kirk
June 23, 2011
With Cars 2, Pixar has done the unthinkable. They've released a film that isn't funny, is never engaging, and falls to pieces under its particularly hulking attempt at being an easy money grab. It isn't like them. Pixar, animation giant that it is, has a completely spotless record, but even films that slightly miss their respective mark like A Bug's Life and the first Cars have the notable credit of heart and humor fitted into them to a point. Those two films were good but not great, mind you, and it seemed unlikely Pixar would have an out-and-out bomb in their immediate arsenal. Even with apprehension stemming from Cars, hopes were high for Cars 2.
Those hope were nowhere near met. In their latest movie, and latest sequel following Toy Story 3 last summer, the jokes fall short at every… um… turn, and the character arcs found therein seem either paint-by-number or, worse, shoehorned in out of a necessity. You would expect more from John Lasseter, the man who kicked off the Pixar feature brand by directing their first, three outings. You would expect more than an abysmal attempt at pulling nostalgia, disguised as inspiration, from the espionage and intrigue films of the '60s. That's what spawns Cars 2's adventure element. Sure, it's better than the Doc Hollywood copy-and-paste job found in the 2006 original, but the lack of satisfying execution leaves the espionage concept spinning its proverbial wheels.
It doesn't help matters that Mater is the front-and-center character this time around. Voiced by Daniel Lawrence Whitney (you won't hear the name Larry the Cable Guy in this review after this instance), Mater and his best friend Lighting McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, travel to Asia and Europe for the first ever World Grand Prix, a triad of races to determine the best racer in the world. It's here where Mater, through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, is mistaken for a world-class spy by Finn McMissile, voiced by Michael Caine, and Holley Shiftwell, voiced by Emily Mortimer. And, oh, the Mater-isms and surface-level hilarity ensues.
You would think the level of satisfaction with Cars 2's humor range would have been broader. You would have thought Pixar, Lasseter, and the screenwriters involved here would have wanted more than throwing Mater in wacky wild scenarios, have Whitney spout out some redneck phlegmed line that's sure to go on a future birthday card, and rinse and repeat ad nauseum. It's fine if Whitney's brand of comedy satisfies your comedic hunger craving, but why stop there? The humor in Cars 2 is at the low end of the movie's worries, but it's a good indication of the laziness that went into crafting it.
But it moves on from there. Every character, not just Mater, appears to be playing to the back seats in a style of line-delivery that can only be described as abrasive. Even Wilson's McQueen seems to be yelling everything, projecting so much animation just through the dialogue, and can easily be seen flailing his arms about in the sound booth. This is made all the more unfortunate noticing how little McQueen has to do in the film. There's an arc for his character to overcome, a conflict between he and Mater, but it's so easily noticed and swept aside that any weight it might have carried flies away in the passing breeze. And that may be what Cars 2 is missing most - weight. There simply isn't anything in Cars 2 to connect with or anchor its audience.
You could look at the lack of a human element for this. The idea that the world of Cars is made up solely of cognizant vehicles could prove the starting point for a disconnect. Though A Bug's Life and the first Cars were passable by Pixar standards, they too had a certain level of disassociation in them, and these three films are the only features in Pixar's slate that has nary a human character. However, that can't be the only answer. Animated films even in very recent memory (Kung Fu Panda 2 to be precise) feature no human characters but are able to accomplish precisely what Cars 2 lacks. The real culprit here is a lack of an emotional center or any witty comedy, both aspects you would have thought Pixar had on tap.
Perhaps not every character is completely fruitless. Notice has to be given to John Turturro as Francesco Bernoulli, an F1 racer who taunts McQueen every chance he gets. Turturro, like everyone else in the film, appears to be screaming, waving his arms about frantically, and trying to get the attention of every child in the audience. However, this delivery works perfectly for the flamboyant character at hand. Caine's McMissile and Mortimer's Shiftwell are likable enough even if their storyline isn't serviceable enough to hold much interest. Plus, there's a nice nod to Paul Newman's Doc Hudson from the original film.
All of that adds up to very little in the overall film. A few instances of comedy, character, and emotion that work cannot slow down the freight train of carelessness that went into 90% of Cars 2. It's a slow freight train, mind you, one that would have benefited from the ringing energy coming from most of its voice casting. What it is, though, is a bright and muddled malaise, a way for Pixar to throw out a sequel to one of their more popular entries not for the sake of its characters, nor for an untapped adventure that sheds new light on the world those characters inhabit. Toy Story 2 and 3 were monster financial successes for Pixar and Disney, but they also came from a point of having something to say. It was more than cashing in on a famous brand.
Where Cars 2 leaves us is an uncomfortable place in regards to Pixar. It feels like one of a dozen animated sequels to past Disney classics the studio released straight-to-video throughout the late '90s. Cars 2 is a tipped cow shaped like a giant piece of farm equipment. Getting up might be difficult to do, but with time and effort, this stumble could hopefully be a tiny blip on a much larger radar.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10