Pixar Animation Studios is rightfully held on a pedestal in the realm of animated filmmaking. Their ability to create deep and imaginative stories that appeal to children and adults alike is seldom approached, as is their consistency in quality. But even the greatest of animation studios have at least that one black sheep that ensures that their track record isn’t quite perfect. Disney has a few such movies, with Chicken Little being a particular standout, and even Studio Ghibli has Tales from Earthsea under their belt. For Pixar, their weak link is none other than Cars 2.
This 2011 sequel to Cars is everything that would repulse most other Pixar films: It’s juvenile, lacks emotional resonance, emphasizes cheap gags over storytelling, and was made for no other reason than to sell merchandise (Pixar’s films are generally commercially successful, but this is their sole offering that feels tailor-made for the money).
The story here is that Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) enters the World Grand Prix, a series of races that takes him from country to country as he attempts to become the greatest race car in the world. Meanwhile, McQueen has brought Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) along for the ride. Mater subsequently gets embroiled in international espionage, as British secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake him for an American agent. What unfolds is a movie filled with explosions, cultural stereotyping, and the antics of Mater, which only ever seem to be pandering to the youngest of demographics.
In short, it’s a far cry from the “hot shot celebrity learns small town values” setup of the original Cars. The original film may have been predictable, but it had its share of heart. None of that heart can be found in this sequel. With actor Paul Newman passing away in between the two Cars films, his character of Doc Hudson was written out of the sequel, and all the aforementioned heart seemingly left with the character.
Cars 2 is at least aesthetically pleasing, with top notch animation and a musical score by Michael Giacchino that outdoes the original’s score. But one could easily say the production values are simply the norm for Pixar. Cars 2’s great fault is that none of the studio’s usual storytelling prowess translates into this sequel.
As stated, the story has no emotional resonance going for it, with the overemphasis on Mater being a large reason for that. Mater is the kind of character who was intentionally made to be comic relief, and by trying to build the narrative around him, the movie ultimately stumbles. The few jokes that aren’t aimed at the youngest tykes are geared solely for car enthusiasts, leaving all other audiences out of the loop. And despite that Cars 2 is supposedly targeted for a younger audience, it is also bizarrely the only Pixar film in which a character is tortured to death (some might argue that the characters here are “only cars,” but in the context of the film, the cars are people, making the scene in question needlessly gruesome).
Cars 2 simply comes off as a big mess. It’s convoluted and overbloated, and yet there’s no real meaning behind any of it. It’s almost shocking to think this came from the same studio that brought us deep animated stories like Wall-E and Ratatouille only a handful of years beforehand.
On the plus side, some of the secondary characters, like Luigi and Guido, are still charming, and McQueen’s rival racecar Francesco (John Turturro) has a good dose of personality, to the point that you wish more of the film was dedicated to his rivalry with McQueen.
So there might be a couple of bright spots here and there, but no doubt they are lost in Cars 2’s less-than funny humor, muddled plot, and overall inconsistencies. Cars 2 is like one long commercial, and not a very good one at that. The fact that it has the Pixar name attached makes it sting all the more. It’s a wreck.