Silver Screen: Cars II *1/2
First, a tip of the hat to Pixar, which made eleven consecutive good movies. While the all-computer-generated animation of Toy Story revolutionized cartooning, especially feature-length kiddie films, the studio pushed the boundaries of the form at all levels, expanding the scope of what a children's film could accomplish. Some of the later work, Ratatouille and Wall-E in particular, barely register as kids' movies at all.
Depending on who you ask, some people will argue that Pixar flew a little too close to the pandemographic sun with those movies— they accrue haters in a way that's hard to imagine with the Toy Story series. (It should go without saying that those people are Philistines.) Certainly both movies are reaching, but isn't that as good a lesson to teach kids as any of the allegories contained therein?
Only two of the eleven movies seem particularly unambitious. A Bug's Life was Pixar's sophomore outing, and it feels in retrospect like the creators are still stretching their legs and getting deft with the form. But relatively forgettable as it is, it's artfully executed and a lot of fun. The same compliments could be extended to Cars, although it came on the heels of The Incredibles and Ratatouille and prior to Wall-E, and it's clearly the weakest of the bunch. For the first time, a Pixar movie wore its hucksterism on its sleeve; Cars seemed not only designed to sell a lot of toys, but came complete with a theme and a cast and a soundtrack aimed squarely at the middle-American NASCAR set.
Cars II, however, is not only more shameless, it's pretty artless. It's the first bad movie Pixar has made, and while it's not egregiously terrible, it's still a total misfire.
The ill-conceived story essentially takes the characters— well, a couple of them, anyway— out of bucolic Radiator Springs and drops them in the middle of a spy farce. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is invited to participate in a three-part race across Europe and Asia sponsored by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), an oil tycoon turned clean-fuel magnate who wants to use the contest as a platform for his new, environmentally friendly Allinol. McQueen brings along his folksy pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who stumbles into espionage: A mysterious stranger is orchestrating a scheme to sabotage the race with a ray gun to make it seem as though the clean-burning fuel is unstable, thus raising the price of oil culled from a massive new offshore reserve. While McQueen races, oblivious, Mater bumbles his way through a counter-operation led by a James Bond-like car (Michael Caine) and his prim assistant (Emily Mortimer).
It's an utter mess. The spy stuff plays just plain weird in the context of the car world, which is increasingly baffling. McQueen, the ostensible protagonist, is relegated to third-tier background character, having no real impact on the story, while sidekick Mater fails to carry the movie with any real gusto. The alternative-fuel plot device is heavy-handed (heavy-wheeled?) and not only feels shoehorned in to appease environmentalists, but the already-clunky message is jumbled by the silly plot twist at the end. Meanwhile, the rest of the semi-charming cast from the first film is reduced to cameo appearances bookending the rest of the film, which stretches on too long by at least twenty minutes. New characters, like John Turturro's cocky Indy car, fail to register at all.
This is really Larry the Cable Guy's show, but the redneck comic can hardly be faulted for gitting 'er done improperly. His broad comic stylings are actually perfectly suited for a kids' cartoon. It's the movie that fails around him.
Sure, most sequels are cash-ins, but Pixar has proved twice over that a money grab can still deliver a satisfying product. The Toy Story sequels are arguably better than the original, certainly at least as clever, consistent with the past entries but unique unto themselves. There wasn't really much room for Cars to grow, it doesn't seem, and certainly this spy-tinged pseudo-action movie riff seems more like a concept culled out of desperation than a story crying out to be told. The Toy Story sequels were moving; the Cars sequel will probably move a lot of toys.