With the voices of Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and John Turturro; Running Time: 106 minutes; Rated G (nothing objectionable); Written by Ben Queen; Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis.
Pixar, the amazing company that changed the course of animation, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Since the release of its first feature – “Toy Story” – in 1995, they have had an incredible run with some of the best animated movies ever made, including “Monsters, Inc.,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E,” and “Up.” While a couple of films, “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars,” weren’t quite in the pantheon, CARS 2 is the first truly bad film they have produced. Apparently, co-director John Lasseter, who is responsible for much of Pixar’s success, is so in love with the idea of talking cars that he could not see that “Cars 2” falls short of the standards he is most responsible for establishing.
The animation is still state-of-the-art. The artists and technicians are doing the best work in the field. However, the script – always one of the great strengths of the Pixar films – is, ironically, pedestrian. Racing car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) agrees to compete in a European race where he will face off against Italian sports car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). Their lame rivalry is such a cliché that it was lampooned, to much better effect, in the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights” (2006).
The main story starts as a James Bond spoof where British agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) is investigating a mysterious conspiracy involving cars that are notorious lemons. He and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistakenly believe that the moronic tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is the American agent who is supposed to be working with them. Mater is the type that seems to be popular in current comedies: the aggressively stupid character who constantly makes matters worse and doesn’t have a clue.
None of this is the least bit interesting or engaging, and the characters generate no sympathy from the viewer. Pixar made us shed a tear for old toys, a rat who wanted to cook, and an obsolete robot; here, though, the characters seem to be more about merchandizing than anything else. If this is what the merger with Disney did, then this may be the beginning of the end of Pixar.
Worse still, no one has given any thought to the logic of the world they created. The world of banned superheroes in “The Incredibles” or monsters creating nightmares in “Monsters, Inc.” made perfect sense within the context of their movies. The world of “Cars 2,” like its predecessor, does not. We see trains, planes and boats as living characters like the cars, yet the cars ride inside them. Does that mean the passenger compartments of the cars are functional? For whom? We see a few cars with “arms” – like a forklift – but most lack them. So when Mater leaves a lengthy handwritten note, how did he write it? This kind of sloppiness was unthinkable in other Pixar movies. Here we’re just supposed to thrill to the antics of the talking cars and ignore it.
This review is written in sadness, not anger. Pixar has produced an amazing body of work but it was inevitable that sooner or later they would fail. Not even the greatest star or director has a brilliant film every time out. The problem with “Cars 2” is that the warning signs were there. The people who should have known better, like Lasseter, went ahead anyway. At least you can enjoy the short “Toy Story” cartoon that precedes the movie. It provides hope that perhaps this was just a detour and not the road to infinity and beyond.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.