Cars was a movie squarely aimed at the hearts and minds of small children. Its success at hitting that mark is not debatable. Cars was/is a merchandising behemoth. This fact often gets tossed around as correlative evidence of the film’s cheap appeal, which belies the fact that kids clearly want all those toys and shit because they like the film’s characters. But to childless adult cinefiles who had routinely championed Pixar as the greatest creative force in the Hollywood system – proof that audience-pleasing mainstream movies could also be brilliant – Cars was seen as something of a betrayal.
Cars and A Bug’s Life (both directed by Pixar big cheese John Lasseter) generally jockey with each other for the “Worst Pixar Movie” crown on movie message boards, and while everyone has their own reasons for liking or disliking the respective films, I think it is safe to say that Cars is Pixar’s least complex film. So when Cars 2 was announced, I think it was also safe to say that a lot of people cried ‘bullshit.’ Say what you will about the reasoning behind making Cars 2, but you certainly can’t accuse Pixar of shitting out a lame rehash of the first film. This is a sequel warmly embracing the idea of going “bigger and different.” Out is the Doc Hollywood “big city hotshot finding himself in Bumpkinville” theme, and in is an epic international adventure mixing spy movie parody with The Man Who Knew Too Little style Hitchockian wrong man farce. The basic premise centers on a mysterious plot to sabotage an international race promoting a new Earth-friendly fuel created by billionaire Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) enters the race when his prowess is challenged by Italian racing star Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). Lightning brings Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) along for the trip and immediately Mater starts embarrassing Lightning; this is the “emotional” subplot for the film, which co-mingles awkwardly with the main storyline centering on Mater getting farcically mistaken for an American spy by two British Intelligence agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and the excellently named Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Wackiness ensues.
There was little chance that Pixar was going to make a sequel to Cars that fans of the first film weren’t going to like. The big question here was if Cars 2 could offer anything to those who didn’t like the original. The answer to that question is — No. Cars 2 is bigger and it is different, and though there are some scenes that reach the kind of greatness discerning cinefiles demand from Pixar, the film isn’t quite bigger or different enough to win over haters. This likely won’t surprise anyone. What is surprising is that Cars 2 displays some very un-Pixar-like problems in the script and emotional-heart departments.
First let’s talk positive. Cars is a cute film. Simplistic, yes, but if Pixar is going to skew towards adults with films like Ratatouille, they have earned to right to skew towards kids sometimes too. No harm there. What makes Cars work, for those it works for, is the characters. Lightning McQueen is a lame duck of a protagonist, but the side characters are the kind of broad and colorful types that children adore. As an adult (a “blue state” adult more specifically), it is hard to separate Mater’s voice from Larry the Cable Guy. For example, former CHUDman Damon Houx observed to me after the screening that a silly gag in which Mater foolishly mispronounces Francesco Bernoulli’s name as “San Francisco” carries a subtle homophobic taint to it when delivered by Larry the Cable Guy. But, objectively speaking, Larry the Cable Guy is great as Mater. I hate Larry the Cable Guy, so it pains me to admit it, but he is. If I were six, I’d love Mater. While a lot of his fish-out-of-water gags will come off as too easy to most adults, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to laughing at many of them — like Mater mistaking wasabi for mint ice cream, or Mater trying to navigate an insane overly mechanized Japanese toilet. Michael Caine is also excellent as super spy Finn McMissile, who is tricked out with an endless array of spy-car gizmos that allow him to do some very un-carlike maneuvers. And while it is a bit boring to hear Joe Mantegna basically doing the same “mob guy” voice we’ve been hearing for almost 20 years on The Simpsons, the presence of Bruce Campbell’s unmistakable pipes as Rod “Torque” Redline, the American agent that Mater gets confused with, earns the film some nerd-brownie points.
The action in Cars 2 is mostly excellent. Oddly side-lining the car racing, Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis really embrace the spy parody aspect of film. One could say, “well, if they wanted to make a spy parody so bad, why didn’t they just make a spy parody?” But the ways in which Pixar cleverly figures out how to make automobiles perform classic spy movie routines is half the fun — I laughed out loud when Holley Shiftwell IDs a villain by scanning his VIN number. The awesome opening sequence of Cars 2 is the most successful portion of the film. In the sequence we’re following Finn as he journeys out to a lonesome oil rig to snap pictures of a secret weapon the villains have designed. Lasseter and Lewis find ways for Finn to plausibly hang off the side of a boat, scale vertically up a wall (magnetic wheels), and lower himself Mission Impossible-style above his target. Oh yeah, and he murders tons of villain cars. Just so there is no ambiguity, Lasseter and Lewis keep the camera on one specific villain as he tumbles down into the ocean and breaks apart. Then Finn blows up about 20 some other cars, before escaping in a fun Bond-car homage. Cars 2 works the best when it sticks with this vibe — such as Bruce Campbell’s bathroom brawl or a comically improbable martial arts alley fight between Finn and some thugs.
Now let’s talk what doesn’t work.
There are a lot of little things I could nitpick about, like the fact that the mistaken identity farce would have been tighter if Mater weren’t aware of said mistaken identity the entire time — the gag that he is always trying to tell the British spies that he isn’t a spy, yet they just keep assuming he is deep undercover, wears thin pretty fast. But whatever. The spy farce still functions as it is meant to; it is silly and funny, if uneven. But at the core of Cars 2 lurks a bizarre and rather terrible message: true friendship connections are unimportant. Now, I’m obviously reading deeper into Cars 2 than I am supposed to, but that is actually what bothers me. I don’t think Pixar was trying to cheapen the concept of friendship, but simply being lazy. This laziness is what creates the terrible message.
The big emotional subplot of the film – the “heart,” if you will – concerns McQueen being embarrassed to have Mater as a friend. He never invites Mater to his races because he’s afraid Mater will make him look bad. Well, this proves 110% correct. Not only does Mater embarrass McQueen repeatedly moments upon arriving in Japan (the first of the race’s three international legs), but he directly causes McQueen to lose the first race when he leaves his headset on while fucking around with the spies. When McQueen chews Mater out after the race we’re clearly supposed to think that McQueen is being unreasonable. But Mater did make McQueen lose because he is an idiot. Is it unreasonable that McQueen should take his career seriously, and voice his disappointment when a member of his own pit crew causes him to lose the race? This itself is a lazy plot point, but the greater ramifications of this subplot are even lazier and philosophically troublesome. From purely a screenwriting perspective, this subplot is defective for two reasons: 1) Mater is the protagonist of Cars 2, but it is McQueen who has the character arc of learning to appreciate his best-friend, and 2) this inter-personal conflict has no bearing on McQueen’s racing. McQueen (spoiler?) wins the second leg of the race, which occurs during the height of his annoyance with Mater. If the film is hinging on the importance of their friendship, wouldn’t it have been stronger to have had McQueen narrowly win Race 1 but yell at Mater anyway (which would have been more dickish), and then lose Race 2, when Mater is temporarily out of his life? Going into Race 3 off a loss is just inherently more suspenseful than going into it off a win anway.
Ignoring screenwriting logic, here is what bothers me about the emotional “heart” of Cars 2… Mater is an idiot. That is the basic gag of the character. He’s a dopey redneck. He ends up proving himself in Cars 2 because of his extensive knowledge of car parts (he is a tow truck after all). So he’s an idiot savant. But, regardless, he is pretty stupid in his day-to-day life. His winning character trait isn’t his savant skills, but simply that he has a pure heart. He’s a lovely guy who will do anything for his best-friend, McQueen. That is a very nice character trait for anyone. But I don’t see how it is fundamentally wrong for McQueen to not connect with Mater. I agree that generally speaking McQueen should be nice to Mater, and sure, they can be pals. But best-friends? The film goes out of its way in its first third to demonstrate that McQueen just isn’t functioning at the same speed as Mater. They like different things. So really their friendship is based on the logic that you have to be friends with someone just because they like you and because they are a nice person. I may be blowing this up to bigger proportions than seems relevant, but given that this emotional conflict comprises the entirety of McQueen’s storyline, a storyline that is pretty terrible and ruins the good things Lasseter and Lewis do in the spy farce portions of the film, I think it is relevant. McQueen isn’t taking Mater for granted. He isn’t getting a big head from press attention and cruelly deciding Mater isn’t “proper” or “important” enough to be his best-friend. Emotionally it feels like McQueen is simply realizing he and Mater are two different people — friends but not best-friends. But that’s not what is actually happening in the film. The entire climax hinges on McQueen realizing how much he likes Mater. Pixar are the masters of heart, so it feels incredibly weird for them to have an emotional storyline that so half-assedly tries to work around earning its warm fuzzy feelings.
It is hard to make stuff like this work when your hero truly is a moronic fuck-up, as Mater is. Mater doesn’t have an arc of any kind, because the film is positing that he doesn’t need to change. Because he is so nice and pure, the rest of the world needs to learn to appreciate him. Eventually Mater realizes people view him as an idiot, gets sad, and then bucks up. But that’s not an arc. This is the sort of thing that should happen to a supporting character. Also, because the film takes place in multiple foreign countries, with numerous foreign characters, there is a slight “ugly American” vibe here too. I certainly don’t think Pixar has these sentiments (especially after the love-letter to Paris that was Ratatouille), but such subtext is unavoidable when we’re meant to think that the foreigners looking squint-eyed at Mater when he’s being a loud idiot are being unfair. There is a moment when McQueen is quite literally telling Mater that he needs to curb his behavior in these foreign cities, but this is suppose to serve as an example of McQueen being uncoolly embarrassed to be seen with Mater. But isn’t there some truth to what McQueen is saying? You should curb your behavior in a foreign city if your behavior is obnoxious. Not doing so is very specifically what a lot of foreigners hate about Americans. It isn’t their job to learn to understand you in their own country.
So, yeah, Cars 2 delivers a much crappier emotional story than Cars, which is too bad, because overall it is a much more entertaining film. The vast majority of the spy stuff is truly excellent — some of the best spy parody I’ve seen in a while; fun, creative and well-orchestrated. I would think it goes without saying at this point that Cars 2 looks gourd-blowingly gorgeous. The rendering of the foreign cities is impressive in pure scope, and the use of 3D is surely the best we’re going to get in 2011. Fans of the first film will be happy with the fact that all the characters (no matter how small) from the first film are worked in here somewhere. All except Doc Hudson, who was voiced by the late Paul Newman. Doc, we learn, died between films. While this move makes some sense, it is also kind of weird if we stop and think about it. Imagine viewing these films 4o years from now. More questions are raised by Doc suddenly being dead than would be if they’d hired a Newman-soundalike — especially considering that this is exactly what was done for the late George Carlin and Joe Ranft’s two characters (the hippie van and the fire truck).
Bottom line: fans of Cars will find plenty to love here. Haters of Cars won’t. Simple as that. As someone who was neither a fan nor a hater of Cars, I give the film:
Out of a Possible 5 Stars