CARS 2. 112 mins. G. Directed by John Lasseter & Brad Lewis. Written by Ben Queen.
Cars is easily my least favorite of all the Pixar movies, but hey, it sells a ton of merchandise and the kids seem to like it so a sequel was almost inevitable. Luckily, the people at Pixar recognize, unlike so many others this summer, what separates a good sequel from a bad one. Rather than offer a warmed-over retread of the first, Cars 2 goes in a whole other direction: it's a globe-trotting spy adventure a la James Bond, rather than a Doc Hollywood-lite trifle. And while nobody's going to accuse the movie of being high art, it's a money-grab sequel that ultimately earns the right to pick your pocket.
The focus this time around shifts from speedy red race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) to rusty tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). The shift is a bit jarring - Lightning barely registers as a character here, and I'm not sure Mater deserves more screen time. He worked just fine in small doses before, but centering a movie around a character played by Larry the Cable Guy may not have been the brightest move on Pixar's part. Just ask the producers of such "punny" comedies as Delta Farce and Witless Protection.
Anyway, while hitting the race circuit for the Grand Prix (stops include Japan, Italy, and London), Mater is mistaken for an American spy by two British intelligence agents: Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Finn and Holly are deep undercover, trying to unravel a series of explosions on the race track that are mysteriously tied to an alternative fuel source. Mayhem and car chases ensue, and, thankfully, there's no 5-minute montage set to cheesy music about the beauty of old time Radiator Springs.
Instead, we're treated to a breezy Michael Giacchino score that zips and zooms, recalling some of his work on Speed Racer and The Incredibles. When Cars 2 is in action mode (which it frequently is), there are some truly thrilling set pieces. Some of the cars have all kinds of nifty spy gadgets, allowing them to swim, fly, and everything in between. Finn McMissile is a particularly cool character, no doubt aided by the fact that he's voiced by the incomparable Michael Caine. I swear, if the movie were just Finn evading evil cars while Giacchino music swells on the soundtrack, the star rating would be higher.
In addition to some pretty spectacular action sequences, many of the exotic locales are stunningly animated in lifelike fashion. Just look at some of the exterior shots of Italy and London in the film, and try to tell me you're not impressed. The story may be a little too convoluted for its own good, but the visuals certainly do their part to pick up the slack.
Critics have been piling on Cars 2, smelling blood after having had to praise Pixar's movies for the last 16 years. The bad reviews are too harsh and, frankly, undeserved. What did they expect? This was never going to have the dramatic resonance of, say, Toy Story 3 or Wall-E or Up or Ratatouille. It's simply not that good. It never could be. It's about talking cars. I'm just happy that the filmmakers embraced the potential of a sequel, never resting on their laurels or giving audiences the same product. Cars 2 is a vast improvement on the original. But I still don't want to see Pixar waste its time on a Cars 3, box office (and merchandise) be damned.