2006’s Cars was the first, and only, time that I had known disappointment from the house of Pixar. It was a feature steeped in nostalgia, crammed full of mawkish city-slicker-learns-to-appreciate-life clichés and a cast full of small-town archetypes. Gone was the sense of ingenuity that usually counterbalanced the studio’s standard sentiment; even with gorgeous animation, it was a lazy movie lovingly assembled, not to mention a slam-dunk for toy sales.
Now, Pixar has done the seemingly impossible: they made a better film, and did so while also making redneck tow truck sidekick Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) the lead. Yes, the fish-out-of-water tables have turned, with champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) offering to show Mater the world outside of Radiator Springs as McQueen competes in a globe-trotting grand prix organized by oil tycoon-turned-environmentalist Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). However, sabotage is in the air, and as the crew travels from Tokyo (here, Towkyo) to Italy to London, the typically aloof Mater becomes increasingly mistaken for a deep cover agent by British intelligence operatives Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).
At the total expense of the first film’s noble “slow down” message, Cars 2 is Pixar’s loving attempt to emulate the adventures of James Bond and an excuse to work in full-blown chases and fights alongside Lightning’s proper races (themselves as devotedly detailed as ever -- check the exhaust vapors on the track). The opening escape sequence is a doozy, and although it’s surreal to see anthropomorphized automobiles wielding weapons at one another, director John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis treat the stakes as highly as they would in any other action film. The plot itself grows a bit convoluted, leading to patches of wheel-spinning (sorry), but it’s a generally inspired espionage riff all the same, bolstered throughout by Michael Giacchino’s game score.
The lessons at hand are typically pat, as Lightning learns to appreciate a friend he’s grown to resent (for acting like a complete buffoon), and Mater comes to understand how others perceive him (as a complete buffoon). Cable Guy still lays on his yeehaw mentality a little thick, but maybe it’s just the absence of lugnut jokes, the presence of lowered expectations, or the constant support of the always sage Michael Caine that makes his character slightly less insufferable than before. As for the logic of a world where cars eat sushi as well as conventional fuel and are forced to enter metal detectors at the airport (an initially amusing sight gag that invites more disturbing implications), forget it. Either the concept works, or it doesn’t.
I do consider Cars 1 to be decidedly minor in the span of the Pixar canon, and despite its pleasures, I’d rank Cars 2 similarly. If anything, it’s the closest the studio has come so far in cranking out something like a DreamWorks effort, a cartoon that is inspired in the moment and yet inconsequential in the scheme of things. Like many DreamWorks efforts of late, it’s a worthwhile diversion. The 3-D, while well-rendered, mutes the vibrant color palette -- but let’s hope that Lasseter and friends soon return to the emotional ambition that has made Pixar such a reliable brand to date.