Cars 2 improves on a sequel in every way possible. Sure, many cite 2006’s Cars for being the weakest link in the Pixar chain so making a better sequel was hardly going to be a Herculean effort. Still while Lasseter’s nostalgic trip down memory lane may have been too simple for fans of the animation powerhouse, Cars 2 finds itself more in company with The Incredibles, Wall E and even Finding Nemo with its rousing story, action pieces and tons of eye candy. Much less a look back at his own past, Cars 2 becomes a purely cinematic nostalgia trip, one whose influences find themselves making more than passing homages to classic spy films.
Boiled right down to the basics, this time around Cars 2 it’s Mater’s story and features Lightning McQueen who’s playing the sidekick. Mistaken as an American spy Mater finds himself in the middle of an old North By Northwest fashioned story with some really brilliant villains. The Pacer, Gremlin, Hugo Trunkov are the Lemmons of the car world and after years of mockery have decided to make the world pay for the laughter and bad reps they’ve endured. Set up as the heads of dangerous crime families, it’s revealed that they’re only working for a unknown mastermind who’s overseeing this whole dastardly plot.
So as Lightning is racing in the World Grand Prix, Mater is caught in the case of mistaken identity and he’s the only hope to save his friends as they travel from Japan, Italy and England. To say this is a CG redux of something like Johnny English or Get Smart would almost be an insult although it’s not far off. It’s more or less that old tale of how a foreigner’s (read: Mater) own ineptitude and ignorance of the world outside of his hometown is actually his saving grace as it’s his bumblings that get him out of sticky situations.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the first Cars, this is sure to please. This time around Lasseter (and co Director Brad Lewis) bring the whole gang is back as it wouldn’t be a sequel unless you had the whole garage of colorful characters who brought warmth to the first film. Bringing a credible about of weight to the story the addition of Michael Caine (as the oh so cool super spy Finn McMissile) Emily Mortimer and even John Turturro round out the cast of internationally inspired characters. There’s also short but sweet tribute tot he late Paul Newman that kind of gets at you.
Sometimes the spy angle is overplayed especially in some unoriginal and rather trite expositional scenes. Then again this is Mater’s movie and most of the audience probably has never seen a James Bond film. But making a kid’s movie with quasi heavy spy leanings proved tough for the overall narrative because being serious without being silly and vice versa is not easy to pull off…especially with animated car characters. Still it’s a tremendous improvement over the first film and trying on britches bigger than it can possibly fill, Lasseter and Lewis try their darnedest with an effort that’ll honestly make other spy films jealous.
You can constantly applaud Pixar for their attention to detail but this time I’m not even talking about the quality of their CG rendered environments. No this time they really did their homework and perfectly captured the cultural nuances of each country hosting the World Grand Prix. However I found most enjoyment and delight in the elements both big and small in Japan. From the neon billboards to vending machines to capsule hotels and even the bathrooms; they nailed it. Further if it wasn’t for the googley eyes of each character and the exaggerated scale of things you’d swear some scenes (in every country) were all real and not CGI with the added bonus of the 3D really popping the already stunning scenery, even though, as Roget Ebert points out it “darkens the bright colors“.
The spy story makes you want to elevate the film past the Lightning/Mater friendship undertones to something as elegant and sophisticated as they’re intending. But then Mater comes along and reminds you who the story is aimed at. So if Super 8 made you feel like a kid again, Cars 2 makes you feel even younger and it’s OK because that was the point all along. Only some will like it and others won’t. Throwing things like physics out the window you can enjoy the inventiveness of the story, events and characters. Moreover it’s easy to imagine John Lasseter pitching this whole movie to the Pixar bunch like a kid would replete with driving cars up walls and making rocket booster wooosh noises.
True to form, Pixar stories appeal to every single age group. Some would argue that the Cars films pander but I don’t have a problem with it this time around. It’s a fun breezy story that can be pretty clever at times. I mean how brilliant is it that the biggest lemons of the car worlds are the dastardly villains here. It certainly leaves the first Cars in the dust as far as spectacle but again leaves you feeling something was missing. Still, if the first film could spawn a gazillion dollars in merchandise sales for being considered underwhelming, I can’t even imagine the breadth and diversity of sales based on all these new characters. That might be this sequel’s biggest advancement/achievement of all.
P.S. And “Hawaiian Vacation” (the Toy Story 3 short before Cars 2) is a delight although still kind of funny that Lasseter’s bigger stars would be playing second fiddle as the opening act to the Cars crew.
P.P.S. PP <—-That’s funny right there!!