REVIEW: Cars 2 Is All Chassis and No Soul

Movieline Score:

Everyone who's ever loved a car -- a beat-up Plymouth junker, a pristine '67 Mustang, a Hot Wheels Corvette Stingray, it doesn't matter -- knows that cars have personalities of their own. But one of the nice things about cars is that they generally express their feelings in mechanical, comprehensible terms: The need for an oil change has nothing to do with deep-rooted insecurities. Cars don't need a lot from us, emotionally speaking.

There have been talking cars before, in movies and on TV, but Pixar's 2006 Cars brought the concept to a new level: These cars had google eyes, buck teeth and nostril-shaped headlights (or headlight-shaped nostrils, if you prefer), and they yearned for the days when gas was cheap and plentiful and Americans would take to the open road without blinking an eye. They also needed to learn that it's friends and family that really matter, a theme that can never be exhausted, especially when it comes to animated movies targeted largely at kids. And so Cars 2 -- which was directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis (Lasseter also directed the first Cars, with Joe Ranft) -- gives us more of the same, and yet less. The picture is busy and noisy, the better to keep the attention of rascally 4-year-olds, and, as always with Pixar creations, its technical craftsmanship is beyond reproach. It's the movie's soul that feels mechanical: The picture urges us to value our home and our friends, to ratchet up our environmental awareness, to not laugh at unsophisticated hicks (even, paradoxically, as it invites us to laugh at unsophisticated hicks). It does just about everything but tell an actual story.

Owen Wilson once again supplies the voice of little red stock car Lightning McQueen, who returns triumphantly to Radiator Springs only to head back out again almost immediately (apparently, it's not that great a place to be): An arrogant Italian hot rod by the name of Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) has challenged him to compete in the World Gran Prix. McQueen is rarin' to go, but hesitates at the idea of bringing his closest friend, buck-toothed tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), with him. He's afraid Mater, with his Gomer Pyle accent and backwards ways, will embarrass him in the classy cities where the competition will take him. But McQueen's girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) prevails, persuading him that toting Mater along is the right thing to do. So the two head off to Tokyo for the first leg of the race.

And there, of course, Mater proceeds to embarrass his friend, big-time: Mistaking wasabi for pistachio ice-cream, he eats a whole dishful of it, and hoo-dawgie, is that stuff hot! Next, he "pees" in front of the race's big-ticket sponsor, alternative-fuel magnate Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) -- boy, is McQueen's face red! The embarrassments pile up and, stung by McQueen's exasperation, Mater decides to return home, foregoing the two other races in the competition, set to take place on the Italian Riviera and in London. But before he can get anywhere near Radiator Springs, he gets mixed up with two British spies, a spiffy Aston Martin named Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and spygirl-in-training Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). He's whisked off to Paris before he can say, "Golllll-eee!"

The plot of Cars 2 is both overly convoluted and thin, and it folds in so much unvarnished toddler-instruction that it almost feels like an educational film. Little tykes will toddle home from Cars 2 with a solid grasp of the looming crisis we face if we don't decrease our reliance on fossil fuel, and they'll also know that it's not nice to make fun of non-book-learnin' types who talk funny.

The latter of those two lessons is the one that doesn't quite sit right: Larry the Cable Guy's Mater is the franchise's regular joe, the unpretentious straight shooter. But Cars 2 insists on urging us to laugh at his lack of sophistication, only to pull back and lecture us for noticing that he's not being God's brightest bulb. That's one of the weird Pixar recurrences that I've rarely heard anyone talk about: Some of the Pixar movies (not the Toy Story movies, or the ones directed by Brad Bird) reek of a kind of NPR-style enlightenment -- they seem to be made by alleged sophisticates who can't help looking down their noses at all the poor, uneducated unfortunates out there. The much-beloved Wall-E views regular folk as fat, lazy types who can't be bothered to get out of their loungers. And Cars 2 sacrifices Mater, a basically harmless if goofy character, to its audience's sense of superiority. We're encouraged to look down on him; then the movie takes great pains to tell us we shouldn't, even as it repeatedly uses his naïf-abroad routine for laughs.

Your 4-year-old won't care about that doublespeak, of course. Nor is he or she likely to understand why the late Paul Newman's character, Doc Hudson, had to be written out of the sequel -- but at least screenwriter Ben Queen (working from a story by Lasseter, Lewis and Dan Fogelman) went to the trouble to do so, as gracefully as possible.

Beyond that, Cars 2 is so action-packed and thematically cluttered that it achieves a level of blurred dullness. But what troubles me most about it is the dimness of the movie's colors as viewed in 3-D. Even though I didn't particularly respond to Cars 2, I respect the animators' color sense enough to be frustrated by the way 3-D technology flattens out every cherry red and metallic cobalt blue -- occasionally, I'd lift my glasses to see how much of the color story I wasn't getting. Why do we want images to pop out at us, if it means sacrificing a movie's visual vibrance? With the increasing ubiquity of 3-D, I find myself asking that question practically every week, but it's particularly baffling when we're talking about animation. Cars 2 has its problems, but a dingy color palette isn't one of them. If you're going to see it this weekend, opt for the 2-D ticket. Don't pay extra for a visual gimmick that's the equivalent of any car's most poignant plea: "Wash me."


  • ILDC says:

    Why did they just recast George Carlin's Fillmore?

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    RE: The much-beloved Wall-E views regular folk as fat, lazy types who can’t be bothered to get out of their loungers.
    No NPRer is just going to overtly portray them like this, because it would acknowledge regular folk as being capable of handling seeing themselves straight. What they'd do is think of them as fat, lazy and stupid -- and as having gotten that way, not out of any decision on their own (which would suggest free enterprise), but sadly due to the manipulation of actually savy others -- and figure out a way to slightly suggest to the proles their "problem" in a way they could be expected to handle. To them, they're not just fat, lazy, and stupid, but by consitution irredemiably dependent -- in need of mediation and rescue by concerned liberals. No, Wall-E came from people who still believed in the average American, and were willing to talk straight to them. You've become ridiculous guys -- "I mean, look at you!" -- but all hope still lies with you: Wall - E and the captain, especially, showed a belief in the power of hutzpah, disrespect, and optimism, and centered it (however rightly) on those out of the loop; Eve, how sophistication can't on its own progress anywhere.
    At no point did I think "Ratatoille" showed there was any real worth to the unsophisticated. To get anywhere, he needed the helping hand -- from someone (the rat) you had a hard time believing really ought to be helping out such an idiot. It reflected back well on the rat, I suppose, but as nice as it is to see a kid get up in this world -- "all's well that end's well" -- what's the point, really? He's still forever an idiot, however harmless and affable.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    With all due respect (which usually and rightfully means no respect whatsoever), I tried to understand your rant and left feeling like I'd have more luck trying to decipher the adult voices on a Charlie Brown holiday special. Um, huh?

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I think we all like to know when we're not being clear, but it can be difficult sometimes to know if it's just that the listener isn't focussing. With the cues you've given me here, I'll be generous and say it's the former, but it honestly strikes me as possible you're constituted to the core of internat spam, and just felt compulsed to effuse your spew on me. I'm wondering if I added anything, but WHILE wiping you off.

  • KevyB says:

    No, what he's saying is that you've wrapped your politics in gobbledy-gook that, on the outside, seems sophisticated, but really it's just a fancy wrapper around a convoluted core. In fact, the reviewer and the dude from the Land of We Believe (If We Want To) are both wrong. The people on the ship are fat and lazy because muscles atrophy when exposed to prolonged weightlessness. This has been explained CONSTANTLY, since fat people whined incessantly when the movie came out. Wow, the answer comes from SCIENCE, the enemy of conservatives!

  • casting couch says:

    Cool story, bro.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I think the movie suggests pretty powerfully that the people are fat on the ship because, though they're the kind of people who would like to think of themselves as interested in getting fit and eating right, they've been made into people who's default is actually to sit still, eat themselves obese, and believe those who'd tell them -- "you're this way only owing to space!" They CAN become active, self-moved, but only after rebelling against a "pleasure economy" tyranny that played to their familiarity and comfort with instant gratification, after being invigorated by the greater pleasure found in self-autonomy and (common) purpose. They're stirred in the same way Eve is stirred: by the discovery of something less refined, more base -- superficially HARDER to like -- but ultimately way more natural and soul-satisfying.

  • Burbanked says:

    On one hand, Pixar reeks "of a kind of NPR-style enlightenment…made by alleged sophisticates who can’t help looking down their noses at all the poor, uneducated unfortunates…"
    Yet you also suggest that your readers have kids too stupid to understand why a late actor's character isn't in the movie.
    So who's looking down on their audience again?

  • Trace says:

    Are you suggesting that the average 4-year-old is going to know who Paul Newman is or why his character was written out of a movie? Do you REALLY think that's a realistic expectation?

  • whatafy says:

    The main weakness of this film is a failure to create any kind of sympathy for the characters. They are not alone, they are not lost, they have friends and allies and the resources to get out of any situation. It never feels like there is any real danger, as there is with the Toy Story films. Whereas the first film had enough focus on character development to compensate for this, the subplot about the tested friendship between McQueen and Mater seems especially insubstantial here.

  • Trace says:

    That scientific explanation is largely absent from the movie, though I notice gratuitous shots of slurpies and other high-fat food items were in abundance...

  • Trace says:

    ALSO, there was gravity on the ship. Sure, prolonged weightlessness can cause muscle atrophy, but this ship had a center of gravity. These people were being pulled down by a gravitational force; therefore, they were NOT weightless. They could have exercised, and that's another troubling aspect of Wall-E: Doesn't the desire for an attractive sexual partner-an intrinsic animal instinctual desire-at least give these people some sort of motivation to exercise at all? Are we really to believe that in the future, we'll be glad to have sex with any old blob? Really? Glib topicality seems to be smothering Pixar films lately, and not for the better.

  • Seat Covers says:

    Well... perhaps it was all about the new pits. Maybe everyone was just disoriented. There were things to this British Grand Prix that everybody should maybe put behind them. Next time, must do better. Drivers, mechanics, everybody LOL!

  • RICH says: