As Cars 2 rolls off the Pixar assembly line today, many questions will inevitably come to bear for prospective moviegoers. Is it another hit in the animation shop’s string of consecutive wins? Does it best the original Cars, a film that famously sits at the bottom of many “Best of Pixar” lists? Does it hit all the emotional beats like Up and Toy Story 3 did, making one cry like a baby in the process? Was it made just to cash in on the insanely popular Cars merchandise?
These are all valid questions to ask, for sure, when deciding whether or not to view Pixar’s latest offering. But before I even attempt to answer those questions, how about this one: Is it simply entertaining? The answer is Ka-Chow!
The sequel pits Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) in another big race, this time trading the domestic glitz of the Piston Cup for the international extravagance of the World Grand Prix. He’s been challenged by cocky (and hilarious) Formula 1 racecar, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), to said competition that will span the scenic destinations of Tokyo, Rome and Paris. Never one to back down from provocation, McQueen accepts and leaves behind the familiar settings of Radiator Springs with best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his pit crew in tow.
It’s at this point that the sequel deviates from the first film’s formula. While Cars focused primarily on McQueen, transforming him from arrogant, egocentric hotshot to caring, altruistic compadre, the sequel gives Tow Mater his own chance at the spotlight. Mater, with his ever-present naivety, finds himself in the middle of an international espionage mission led by spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine). When the jolly tow truck is tasked with investigating the mysterious theft of a high tech device, the result is a high-octane caper that ultimately intertwines McQueen’s big race subplot.
With Cars 2, Pixar aimed for a more simplistic approach, checking its trademark emotional tricks at the door. In their stead is a ton of action, sight gags and more action, all of which come fast and furious from the get-go. The opening sequence in particular makes it apparent that director John Lasseter created this spy tale with James Bond movies in mind.
The one constant in both films, aside from the amazing picture-perfect graphics, is McQueen and Mater’s friendship. The story of Cars 2 ultimately relies on the simple message of being true to one’s self, presented in a simplistic way that kids can easily digest. Of course, this message is a recurring theme in Pixar’s films, Cars 2 just uses a different approach to get there.
As is customary with Pixar films, the voice talent is impeccable. Joining Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Turturro and Caine are most of the original cast including Emily Mortimer, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Eddie Izzard, Bonnie Hunt, Bruce Campbell and, of course, Pixar perennial voice actor John Ratzenberger. The late Paul Newman’s absence as the voice of Doc Hudson is address early, but is made up for by the addition of the venerable Caine to the cast.
Overall, I had more fun watching the sequel than the first movie as it packed itself to the brim with entertainment value. The visuals, the sound and the blown out adventure never allow the Cars 2 to get stuck in second gear like Cars did in its second act. It was an unexpected discovery that Mater was promoted to leading man car status, but it just works this time around.
Ultimately, Cars 2 is best watched by ignoring Pixar’s previous body of work because it’s just a different movie. It would certainly pale in a direct comparison to The Incredibles, a film that deftly mixed action and drama and is, in my opinion, Pixar’s best film to date. And, of course, films like Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo and Wall-E are examples of the incredible innovation Pixar is capable of. Cars 2 doesn’t present anything new or intangible like all of those films did, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.
And I’m sure that it was a no-brainer from Disney’s standpoint to release this film and cash in on all the toys, lunchboxes, pajamas and other merchandise that have been a fixture in the kid circuit since the first film debuted in 2006. You’d hope that such a decision didn’t get in the way of any creative direction, but I’m sure the fact that whole aisles at Toys-R-Us are dedicated to the franchise had something to do with Pixar’s decision to make the first sequel that didn’t start with the two words “toy” and “story.”
Pound for pound, does Cars 2 rank above some of Pixar’s best projects? No, it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable time to be had at the movies. In fact, it’s a 200 miles-per-hour thrill ride that’s a ton of good fun. And if that’s not enough to sell you, the fact that it’s preluded by the excellent Toy Story Toons: Hawaii Vacation short should.