By Richard von Busack
Like selling stocks, making films is a division of gambling, and every streak ends at some point. The sad news about Cars 2 is made better by the hope that it might just be a temporary slump for Pixar. It’s a busy, pro-forma sequel, the kind of debacle that’s entered into when a company is expanding. It looks like something that was done to lift the mortgage. Mostly, it’s a Bond parody, but it’s the stale kind, with an American bumpkin mistaken for a secret agent. And it leads to a surprising twist ending that would look weak in a Scooby-Doo episode.
British agent Finn McMissile (a sentient Aston Martin voiced by Michael Caine) is on the track of a mysterious group led by a monocled Zündapp Janus known as Professor Z. He stumbles across a hidden field of offshore oil platforms, and narrowly escapes.
Meanwhile, world-famous race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is still living in Radiator Springs, surrounded by a mixed batch of auto Americans. (Doc Hudson, who was voiced by Paul Newman, is of course not among them). The discovery of a new kind of alternative fuel is announced by a British inventormobile (Eddie Izzard); this new “Allinol” will be demonstrated at three international car races.
Tow Mater gets McQueen to join in for the races in Paris, London, and Tokyo; during this worldwide trip, the drawling tow-truck buddy will be coming along. His ineptness leads to the kind of friction even 30-weight can’t help. Naturally McMissile is watching this race closely, as is his assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). She’s as curvy as a Miata, but she stays as subordinate as the 007 girls of three decades ago. There were all kinds of Bond girls, but one kind is the kind Ian Fleming used to describe as a ‘girl guide’—a girl scout, all gadgets and no guile.
It’s not that what happens next in Cars 2 is really terrible; it’s more attractive to the eye and better paced than the live-action Speed Racer. But it’s overly cute and relentless, and paced to tickle five year-olds. The comedy is gear-headed (the strange gauge of Standard Whitworth tools being essential to a mystery); even the spelling of Holley’s first name is an in-joke for car fanciers.
The heart of the matter—the class-crossing friendship between a yokel and a celebrity—is synthetic as possible. The blame has to go to the sophisticated comedy stylings of Larry the Cable Guy, Tow Mater’s voice. Maybe it’s Larry’s influence, but there’s a new emphasis on bathroom humor, on Tow “leaking oil” at the wrong moments. Pixar usually had too much class to go there.
Admittedly, the Ginza scenes are more of an eyeful than the toy-Tokyo Gaspar Noe built in Enter the Void. Pixar can do backgrounds like no other digital animation studio, but when you’re starting to concentrate on the scenery it’s probably because there’s so little going on in the foreground. Worse, the desert scenes, dimmed by 3D glasses, don’t have the colors and clarity of the first Cars’ desertscapes.
The first Cars was weak Pixar, but it had a point. I was writing about it 5 years ago, in regards Lightning McQueen’s learning the ways of a small town: “The film is all about broken infrastructure that needs repairing; ill fares a nation that's forgotten its small-town values while it celebrates braggarts and loudmouths”.
It’s hard to tell what Cars 2 is about—the importance of sticking with buddies, no matter how trying and inept they are? Even NASCAR fans could admit there should have been an interior story with some heft in it here.
The film sets up a plot about alternative fuels and then backs away, frightened. Cars 2 ends with such nervousness you’d think John Lasseter was dealing with a controversial matter. There’s a path a director of fantasies can take that goes between mounting the soapbox and just treating a well-accepted idea as viable. That kind of triangulation used to be the method that made Pixar what it was and hopefully will be again: a studio that was much more than just a sum of its own technology.