When we first met Lightning McQueen, it was in darkness. The familiar drawl of Owen Wilson chanted "I …am …speed…" and suddenly Cars was off on a fun ride, even if its moral was a little heavy-handed and more overtly aimed at kids than previous Pixar efforts. At least it had a heart at its center, quietly celebrating the backroads of Americana and remembering that it's important to not be too impressed with yourself.
Disney, however, was impressed with the sales of licensed products in the wake of Cars. Thus the studio aggressively expanded that strange world of sentient automobiles, even into an online role-playing game.
Like it or not, a sequel was inevitable – Disney also has a direct to DVD Planes not produced by Pixar -- and original director John Lasseter might as well be the one to shepherd it through.
It just doesn't feel like his heart was in it this time, and Pixar has finally produced a movie that just exists.
The studio has often borrowed story structure from older classic films, and so Cars 2 begins as a James Bond movie. Instead of focusing on Lightning McQueen, we meet the even more improbably named Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), on a midnight boat ride to the middle of the ocean.
Right there, Mattel, you've got yourself a boat and a huge submarine that can carry mini-cars on it. Nicely done for consumer products!
Though Pixar films have never exactly shied away from the consequences of violence, it's kind of bizarre to see the casual disregard for life of a Bond movie transplanted into this colorful world of talking cars. Undercover automobile spies have been crushed into cubes, one gets tortured (but first voiced by the excellent Bruce Campbell) and Finn leads the enemy agents on a merry chase through a play set that I know my son already has at home, leaving explosives behind and killing at least a dozen.
Of course, they are cars, and so what is mortality to them? Let's not get too existential. Except when we finally get to Radiator Springs in a terribly awkward "remember all the characters from the first one?" roll call scene, there's a mawkish tribute to Paul Newman's Doc Hudson who clearly (though never explained) took the highway to Heaven.
After a montage of proving Lightning and Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) are still just good ol' boys never meaning no harm, Mater gets Lightning involved in an international race right out of Speed Racer. Except by taking Mater with him, Lightning has accidentally stumbled into the plot of, well, a Larry the Cable guy movie. While Lightning races, Mater gets caught up in international espionage and attracts the attention of a little British sports car secret agent (Emily Mortimer)
In a concept that is already best not questioned too much, the movie gets pulled in a lot of different tonal directions. Maybe this is overthinking it, but much of the spy movie aspect here, though occasionally funny and clever, was also firmly established in the first Cars as being purely escapist fantasy for Lightning McQueen. (He imagined himself as a movie star in a ridiculously over the top action movie – almost all of the quick cuts of which get echoed here as "reality.")
For laughs, this even stoops to potty humor, not just chuckling at Mater but humiliating him as he leaks oil. Let's not even start deconstructing how their mechanical biology supposedly works, but the shot at wacky Japanese toilets isn't quite worth the joke.
Even the voice work feels tired. Wilson's delivery is so perfunctory that I was convinced it was sound-alike Keith Ferguson from the video games and shorts. The usually idiosyncratic Eddie Izzard dials it down as the Bransonmobile Sir Miles Axlerod, and almost all of the returning characters are just sort of there, stereotypical voices that could be out of a bad videogame adaptation. In one case, it's understandable – who could really replace George Carlin as Fillmore the VW Van?
Only Larry the Cable Guy has the same kind of enthusiasm he has through all the Cars projects. But then, in real life, he's a cartoon character.
Cars 2 is adequate; it's just surprising to have a Pixar film feel so soulless. And yet it didn't have to be. If you want proof, just watch the Toy Story short that plays with it, "Hawaiian Holiday." Carrying on from the end of Toy Story 3, it's a comedy for its own sake that absolutely satisfies. That might make up for the long stretch of road after it.