"Cars 2": This Year's Model Is Top of the Line
While I didn’t think the original Cars was the most original story in the world, it was certainly enjoyable enough as a wonderful embodiment of its own theme that the journey is often more of a reward than the destination. However, I will also admit that it’s not my favorite Pixar movie of their collected works, and that I was one among many looking askance at the announcement that a sequel was coming. It’s hard not to notice that Pixar’s merchandising juggernauts are the ones that have gotten the sequel treatment so far, despite the frequent declarations of the senior creative staff that they’ll only do sequels if they think they have a story worth telling. You have to wonder how much easier it is to talk yourself into thinking that a story is worth telling when you’re sitting on about $2 billion worldwide in merchandising sales a year.
However, as I’ve said in the past, if there’s a movie studio in Hollywood that has earned the right to market a movie by just saying “trust us,” it’s Pixar, and Cars 2 is no giant toy commercial disguised as a feature film. Well, that’s only partially true—it is, in fact, a giant toy commercial with dozens of new car characters already conquering retail toy shelves everywhere. The important thing is that it’s not only that. If they just wanted to sell toys, they could have skipped the whole “making a new movie” part (and the rumored $200 million or so to make and market the thing). In addition to being a wonderful driver for more cool merchandise, Cars 2 is also a hugely entertaining, phenomenally satisfying, precision tuned instrument of speed and aerodynamics that substantially improves on the first film. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it’s the most flat-out satisfying Pixar film since The Incredibles.
In Cars 2, champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is invited to the inaugural running of the World Grand Prix: races set in Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom organized by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), a former oil company mogul who is using the race to promote his new alternative fuel source Allinol. Unfortunately, British master spy Finn McMissile (a pitch-perfect Michael Caine) uncovers sinister forces at work preparing to sabotage the race and its racers. When the rusty old tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for an American spy by McMissile and his fresh-from-the-academy partner Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), he is caught up in a high-risk spy game where the stakes are far, far higher than just a checkered flag at a finish line.
The original Cars was a well-done but extremely conventional “arrogant athlete learns a lesson” story whose story beats were entirely predictable right from the plot synopsis. Cars 2 bears little to no resemblance to its predecessor, taking a sharp left turn from the original premise to produce an exceptionally well-crafted spy genre thriller that owes a great debt to North by Northwest, with Mater replacing Cary Grant as a civilian dragged into a dangerous cloak-and-dagger undertow. In fact, I’d even say that Cars 2 is a much more deeply satisfying spy film than almost all the James Bond outings from the past three decades. Those concerned whether Mater could carry the movie may set their fears to rest, thanks to a razor-sharp script, Pixar’s usual excellent animation, and a winning performance by Larry the Cable Guy. The original movie’s greatest balancing act was making Mater a buffoon without making him stupid. Just because he was a bit of a hayseed and a simple soul at heart did not mean he was an idiot. That balancing act is much more overt in Cars 2 and plays out much more credibly than I expected it would. It might be a little odd to see the rusty tow truck seriously playing out the same kind of ludicrous scenarios from the “Mater’s Tall Tales” short films, but the movie carefully measures out equal parts drama and humor to ensure that we can take the scenario seriously even as we’re snickering at Mater’s clowning and misunderstandings.
This credibility is greatly assisted by Caine and Mortimer as the British agents, both of whom play their roles completely and wonderfully straight and both of whom carry the movie as much as Mater does. Caine turns in a brilliantly tuned performance as the dashing, debonair, suave, and unflappable veteran agent, which makes his blind spot regarding Mater’s undercover bona fides even funnier. Similarly, Mortimer is enormously appealing as a tech desk jockey impressed into field work due to circumstance, and whose initial apprehension is put at ease as she proves to be a natural at the game. She’s an excellent counter-argument to those complaining that Pixar’s movies have no good female protagonists. The car bad guys also ensure we understand that there is real peril to Mater and his new British friends, with the sinister Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann doing vintage stereotypical Evil German) and his top two thugs Acer and Grem (Peter Jacobson and Joe Mantegna, respectively) all having just enough dramatic weight when they could easily have drawn disapproving snickers.
The other, much less developed plot of the film is rooted in the friendship of Lightning McQueen and Mater, and while it ties into the main plot surprisingly well, it’s also much less interesting and drawn from the same semi-hokey stock as the original film. To be honest, it feels like it could have been cut or greatly pared down with little to no impact. There is an underlying theme in both plots of characters wanting Mater to be something other than who he is, and the way the movie resolves both by allowing Mater to be himself is rather clever. Even if this proves to be the same “Be Yourself” theme that drives way too many animated feature films, at least they do a much better job of disguising it. However, since this plot is so underdeveloped, most of the cast of the original movie is left on the side of the road in this one, including Lightning himself. Of course, Paul Newman is no longer with us to return as Doc Hudson (a fact quietly acknowledged at the start of the film), and neither are George Carlin as Fillmore the van or Joe Ranft as Red the fire truck. Personally, I was looking forward to more Bonnie Hunt, since her performance as Sally the Porsche in the original film gave warmth and depth to an underwritten role, but nobody from the original cast other than Mater gets to do a lot in this movie. After McMissile and Shiftwell, the best addition to the cast is easily Francesco Bernoulli, a wonderfully obnoxious Italian Formula 1 race car hilariously overdone by John Turturro.
The high-octane racing sequences were one of the best things about the original movie, and it’s intended as high praise to say that the World Grand Prix races are so marvelously done in this one that I wish they ran longer in the finished film. The design team did a wonderful job at designing these beautiful racecars and what little we see of them in action is absolutely thrilling. Luckily, the thrills of high-speed racing are mated with even higher-octane spy action, starting with McMissile’s solo infiltration and escape from a massive oil rig that starts the film with a bang, and continuing on to a nail-biting escape from a Tokyo airport and then the big climactic finish that hurtles through the streets of London. These sequences are greatly aided by Michael Giacchino’s jaunty, catchy score, which hearkens to the classic twangy guitars of Bond and Peter Gunn and solidifies his position in my mind as one of the best musicians working in film today.
Cars 2 is also worth the extra money and diminished brightness of 3-D. This is the first recent 3-D movie I’ve seen in a theater, but it’s a superb validation of the technique. Many of the racing scenes get an additional adrenaline boost by the added depth that 3-D provides, and while there are a few show-off-y excesses (like a beautiful but utterly gratuitous long helicopter shot that pans over the fictional Italian resort town of Porto Corsa and makes it look a bit too much like a scale model), the technique is almost always artfully used and wonderfully integrated into the film. The 3-D further augments the movie’s substantial strengths rather than trying to hide their absence and weasel more cash out of moviegoers through high-tech gimmickry. This really shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given Pixar’s many declarations that technology should always service the movie rather than the other way around, but I suppose the cooling reception audiences are giving 3-D and the growing negative buzz around it prepared me for the worst.
Cars 2 is preceded by a new Toy Story short, “Hawaiian Vacation,” which is slight but amusing, and mostly scratches the same itch that was happy just to see the band get back together for the third movie last year. Even so, the movie gives more giggles than belly laughs, although it definitely has its moments. However, its very existence also douses that tearful goodbye scene at the end of Toy Story 3, since Disney and Pixar are clearly hoping that they’ll never have to truly say goodbye to Woody, Buzz, and the gang for a long while, if ever.
Sequels that truly outperform the original films are extremely rare, but Cars 2 easily joins that short list. It is much less predictable film than its predecessor (unless, of course, you’ve been watching the clips and behind-the-scenes materials, which unfortunately give away many of the movie’s best surprises), and is an unalloyed delight from start to finish. Cars 2 may not be as quirky or experimental as films like Up or WALL-E, but while its aspirations may be lower, it absolutely nails all of them.
And, if there are thoughts for more Cars spinoffs after Planes arrives on DVD in 2013, I’m officially making my request now for Holley Shiftwell: Agent of C.H.R.O.M.E.
Cars 2 opens in theaters on June 24, 2011.