[Minutes of the June 21, 2011 meeting of CDC (Critics Defending Cars)]
Dear friends: I know it’s been lonely. We’ve seen the conventional wisdom grow that Pixar has had a nearly perfect 15-year run of features … “well, except for Cars.” We’ve fought against the notion that director John Lasseter’s 2006 original was the weak sister of the Pixar canon, a slight and silly knockoff of Doc Hollywood without the style and resonance of Pixar’s other beloved features. That perception only seemed to grow more entrenched as Cars became a license to print merchandising money—approximately $10 billion worldwide, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story—and the announcement of a planned sequel felt like a cynical cash-in.
But we held firm in our insistence that the original Cars was richer than it was given credit for in its wise challenge to the notion that the newer, shinier thing was always the better thing, and its paean to the value of knowing and respecting history. The movie felt like Pixar’s promise to us that it would remain grounded in something more vital than the sparkle and speed of contemporary computer-generated moviemaking. And with Cars 2, it feels as though that promise has been broken.
It certainly starts off with gusto, as the car-populated world finds itself fender-deep in international espionage. British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) has uncovered some sort of diabolical plan aboard an offshore oil platform, one that costs another agent his life. The trail leads to a multi-nation road race where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), among other racing champions, has been invited by industrialist Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to test out a new alternative fuel. And while accompanying Lightning on his trip, simpleton tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for the American spy carrying a key piece of information on which the fate of the car world rests.
OK, so now it appears that Lasseter has made an animated knockoff of the French farce The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe. That opening sequence promises a tremendous energy, though, with transforming autos full of gee-whiz gadgetry chasing and battling one another. It generally feels as though Lasseter and company are interested in nothing more than making a rollicking celebration of Roger Moore-era James Bond films, full of exotic locations and narrow escapes—and there are far worse models one could use for lively summer entertainment.
But even as the creative team launches into a series of location-specific gags for the globe-hopping plot—beginning with a hilarious tour of Tokyo, with its improbable vending machines and weirdly interactive electronic devices—something feels off about the writing. While the Pixar films have always included plenty of “Easter eggs” for attentive viewers—the ubiquitous “A-113,” Pizza Planet truck, etc.—the references here seem to pop up in every frame. Look, there’s a drive-in theater marquee showing The Incredimobiles! Hey, that’s the restaurant from Ratatouille in that Paris street scene! Check it out: The advertisement on the British racecourse is for “Lassetyres!” That constant elbowing in the ribs isn’t the Pixar we’ve come to know and love; that’s (shudder) DreamWorks.
And even when Pixar films have been more referential and jokey, they’ve still had a big heart and a focused story. This one tosses out characters, like Lightning’s Italian open-wheel rival (John Turturro), that don’t matter at all except as part of the next toy line; it buries Lightning and most of the Radiator Springs cast in favor of the better-in-small-doses Mater as main protagonist. What little emotional component there is to this story feels like a minor variation on the done-to-death “like yourself for who you are” angle taken by so many lazy animated films. For the first time, a Pixar script feels like it was shot before it was really ready.
Maybe our expectations remain too high, and maybe we should forgive Lasseter and Pixar their token stab at genre frivolity. There are solid jokes and satisfying action sequences here, but they never pull together into anything more than the sum of its car parts. We were here to defend Cars because we felt that there was something soulful at its core. This time around, friends, the defense rests.
Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine