In a case of mistaken identity, similar to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lightning McQueen’s affably oblivious best friend Mater is swept up in a dastardly and ingenious plot that would make Ian Fleming smile. John Lasseter has a fondness for spy films (as described in his very informative commentary with co-director Brad Lewis). He and his whole family are huge fans of the Bourne series so he felt making Cars 2 a throwback spy film was the best way to approach this sequel. There are lots of amazing sequences and intriguing plot devices that make this like 007-lite as secret weapons, mysterious villains and action packed sequences abounded. However, like any kid who takes all their toys out and plays with them at once there’s a lot going on here; almost too much at times.
While 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 to Italy to England. There’s really enough material to make two movies and the split stories don’t gel the best because just when one gets interesting we switch story lines. 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 Radiator Springs is actually his saving grace as his bumblings, funny enough, get him out of sticky situations.
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.
What the original Cars was missing, to me at least, was more racing. Understandably Lasseter was going for a very nostalgic angle that tried to teach us that sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses and appreciate things before they’re gone. That explains the minimal racing but Cars did have a pretty spectacular opening scene that gave NASCAR a run for their money. This time though, Cars 2 allowed the Pixar team to give us more of that high octane excitement. As stunning as it was it started to fall by the wayside to focus on Mater and get back to the spy story which tend to get distracting.
Cars 2 leaves its predecessor in the dust as this sequel gave us more of everything; more action, more comedy, more high caliber voice talent and yes more Mater. I was looking forward to a sequel with spy leanings but then became extremely depressed when it turned out to be all about Mater. The spy angle was incredibly intriguing (it’s Michael Caine as a spy, what’s not to love?) but it was dumbed down to be how 00-Mater saves the day.
That said, evaluating this as an adult and expecting a pure James Bond film is the wrong approach. Cars is not The Incredibles. No, it’s a movie about talking cars and as such it’s geared almost 100% for kids and kids alone. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille had more mature stories but were able to appeal to all age groups. But Cars, aside from the nostalgic leanings for yesteryear, is simply a kiddie pleaser, so in that mindset, all attempts to make a cool Pixar spy movie are lost in the attempts to make Mater seem like the smartest guy in the room. That’s where it lost me, in the theater that is. Evaluating this again at home, not only was it funnier and more enjoyable, the problems I had with the pacing and plot sort of worked themselves out…or maybe I was just entranced with the Blu Ray visuals. Either way it was just tons of fun.
Even though much of the grown up audience would have preferred more racing (hey it’s still way more than we got in the first Cars) and more Finn McMissile, this is Mater’s movie, so if you aren’t a fan of Larry the Cable Guy then all the snazzy visuals in the world won’t do much to change your opinion of him. As well intentioned and appealing as the spy angle was, most of the younger audience has probably never seen a James Bond film. So making the movie about Mater is ultimately the right move since that’s who most of the kids wanted to see anyway. All in all Cars 2 is a really fun ride so just let the visuals overtake you and enjoy the trip.
And despite my feelings about Mater, the short “Air Mater” is really surprisingly well done so maybe he’s not entirely off putting. So be sure to check that out along with the great Toy Story short “Hawaiian Vacation” on the Blu Ray/DVD!