Review: ‘Cars 2’ is a Long, Strange Trip

By  · Published on June 23rd, 2011

Five years after the success of Cars, Pixar finally drops the second installment on waiting audiences in Cars 2. I am unabashedly a Pixar fan; I’ve loved almost everything they’ve offered up since ‘95’s Toy Story. This noted, Cars 2 is one of the most unintentionally weird and schizophrenic mainstream features I’ve seen in theaters in a long time.

Film-goers are thrust into the current plot via a violent, ten minute intro to the newest character in the Cars universe, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), as he attempts to uncover the nefarious scheming of Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann) on an ocean oil rig. It’s showy and fun, but the eventual payoff is, again, very weird.

The gang from Radiator Springs is back, though barely. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) returns from a whirlwind series of big racing wins to pull some rest and relaxation in his adopted home, and spend some quality time with best buddy Mater the tow-truck. It should be noted that this film belongs to Mater; it’s his movie through-and-through, regardless of any time spent with McQueen or the other sparsely featured protagonists. We’re quickly run through a checklist-appearance of Radiator Springs locals before being thrust back into the story.

A new series of races under the banner of the World Grand Prix are hosted by Miles Axelrod, an old school off-roader turned alternative-energy vehicle pushing a new green fuel, Allinol. McQueen is, of course, game to join the series once goaded by new sorta-antagonist, F-1 speedster Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). Thus, Mater and McQueen are off on a world adventure.

Cars 2, at this point, tries to become a few different films – and never nails down a moral or message in any meaningful way. This is a film that has a very clear, politically charged message – fossil fuels are the devil, clean fuel technology is the way of the future. While I agree, I’m sort of baffled screenwriter Ben Queen and director John Lasseter felt inclined to share said message in this particular film.

Pixar is known for their wink-and-nod to adults, mixing the kid-friendly fare with inside jokes to please parents. More often than not it’s fantastic fun for everyone. While I think that the vast majority of kids will dig Cars 2 for the slapstick humor and beautifully bright and vibrant imagery, there are going to be a small group that might be a little creeped out by some of the darker undertones of the film. There are direct and oft-repeated references to murder, and the word “kill” is used liberally. While the spy story is interesting, there are some Casino Royale moments; one such being a torture scene where the vehicle in question has his eventual demise explained to him while he slowly falls apart. Sure, kids may not fully grasp the gravity of the situation, but it’s odd and out of place in a world of colorful, anthropomorphic cars.

I realize that Pixar films like The Incredibles and Up deal with serious, adult issues throughout – but that’s sort of the point; these movies knew what they were from start-to-finish. Cars 2 tries to be a commentary on friendship, climate change, alternative energy, and accepting yourself for who you are using what was previously a really light-hearted world from the last film. It never fits, or settles into a proper rhythm.

All this said, taking off the critic hat for a moment – kids are very likely going to have a lot of fun with the movie simply because of what it is at its foundation. Mater acts like a goof, garners plenty of easy laughs, and the supporting cast is basically there to set him up for even more. When the Radiator Springs locals are on screen, it’s good times and of course, very colorful. Speaking of, the settings the characters find themselves in are beautiful to behold, and I can honestly say for the first time ever, that this was a solid 3D film. The colors were vibrant, the 3D actually felt somewhat complimentary, and the image was bright and crisp rather than muddy and dark. In short, it was physically fun to watch if not so much intellectually. I’d still have been just as happy seeing Cars 2 in traditional 2D, however.

While I always like to make the case that kids aren’t dumb, and thus family-friendly fare doesn’t need to talk down to them, Cars 2 may be an example of a feature where it’s best that they simply sit and enjoy the pretty colors and silly jokes.

The Upside: Beautiful, fun to watch animation with a decent utilization of 3D. If you ignore the blunt-object that is the environmental message, it’s pretty fun as a simple vehicle (heh) for Mater the tow-truck to do his thing and bring on the easy laughs.

The Downside: Too many messages, none arrived at gracefully, and a little too much darkness considering what the previous installment offered.

On the Side: I smell a Mater spin-off, as he’s clearly the star of this franchise. Also, the Toy Story short before the feature makes you realize just how “on” the folks at Pixar are with that property. Lots of fun in a few short minutes.

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