★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rated PG/120 min.
In the town of Radiator Springs, where everyone is a talking automobile, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is enjoying his fame as a prize winning racer. A French race car named Francesco (voiced by John Turturro) challenges McQueen on a TV broadcast, motivating McQueen to travel to Europe, along with his best friend Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), a rickety tow truck and a source of trouble wherever he goes. Also in the mix is spy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and his right-hand woman–er, car–Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer), as well as a subplot involving a planned act of terrorism.
After a 15-year run of making animated features either great or even better than that, Pixar finally gets caught in a speed trap. Unlike last summer’s Toy Story 3, here is a sequel we didn’t want or need. This isn’t a disaster or embarrassment- Pixar is too good for that. The animation is vivid and lively, even as the story and jokes come off like clunky lug nuts.
The original Cars is my least favorite Pixar movie but, in comparison to the sequel, it had charm and moments of startling beauty. Taking the story out of Radiator Springs was a huge mistake, as that appealingly designed setting offered more opportunities for inventive scenarios and character humor than the new locale chosen. Also, you can’t replace Paul Newman, whose performance as Doc Hudson in the 2006 original was both the heart of the film and Newman’s final performance. The character is respectfully put to rest in the follow-up but you feel the void left by Newman, who gave a center to all the wackiness.
Another big mistake was making Mater the main character. Even in the form of an adorably buck-toothed tow truck, a little of Larry the Cable Guy goes a long way (just try sitting through his live-action movies. I have, and never will again).
The message here (one of many, actually), is that you need to love the friends who are sometimes a real pain in the trunk. Fair enough, but Mater really is a nuisance to McQueen and just one of the many stereotypes on wheels the movie takes for a feature-length spin. The James Bond parody gives us the welcome combo of Caine and Mortimer, but the spoof is mild and Caine did this sort of thing better in Austin Powers in Goldmember.
Turturro’s cheesy villain is amusing but he’s as lightweight as the gentle touch Wilson brings to McQueen and there’s not much here to get excited about. Every previous Pixar film has a show stopper, in terms of an action set piece or an emotional tear jerker, which made it a Pixar essential, but not this one.
It’s no wonder kids love Cars so much, as the characters already resemble toys, even more so than the cast of Toy Story. The four-wheeled cast has eyes that look painted on and the cityscapes they explore feel more like Hot Wheels sets. We also see how cars can give one another fist bumps with their tires, a typical example of the film’s cornball sense of humor.
Only those who loved the original will give this one a spin. Hawaiian Vacation, the Toy Story short that precedes Cars 2, is a shorter, much funnier and better film. Pixar stunned everyone last summer with the emotionally charged and wonderful Toy Story 3 but Cars 2 is the first Pixar sequel that feels like it was made by some other factory.