REVIEW: Cars 2 Is All Chassis and No Soul
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."