Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Cars 2, or “Don’t eat the Pistachio-flavored Movie!”

There is a blight upon Pixar’s good name… and you can call it Mater.

Cars 2 thrusts the simple, yet endearing, sidekick “Tow” Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) into the spotlight as he is mistaken by the British Secret Service for an American agent (the real one being briefly played by cult movie icon Bruce Campbell). What follows is a comedic misadventure that very much combines the plots of recent Bond films and The Man Who Knew Too Little (which was a much more fun film really, in retrospect).

Joining Mater for the obligatory friendship moments in between action scenes is the star of the previous Cars film Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who apparently needs to have the same “what is true friendship” epiphany that he had in the first movie, again.

Many other stars from Cars-the-first cameo as well. I say cameo because they’re not really supporting cast here, what with their screen time limited to whenever it’s time to reset Mater’s joke wheel. Several familiar voices return, such as Tony Shalhoub and Bonnie Hunt… but others are sadly absent, like Paul Newman and George Carlin, the former of which is given a nice send up, the latter of which is ignored and replaced with a sound’s-close-ish voice actor a la Jim Varney in the Toy Story trilogy.

In any case, the story initially starts with the now super-successful McQueen coming home to Radiator Springs to spend the off season with his wife. Did I say his wife? I meant his best-est friend in the whole world, Mater, where they spend a montage sequence tipping tractors, racing and bonding. Still, McQueen does want to spend at least one evening with the missus, and doing so sets Mater into a jealous scheme that somehow ends up with him challenging an arrogant Indy racer, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), on worldwide television on McQueen’s behalf.

Really, the whole prologue bit is just a tether to pull Mater along into the world of international racing so that he can instead take over the spotlight by entering the world of international espionage with the help of agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). 

If Holly Shiftwell is a Bond Girl analog… does that mean that “Shiftwell” is a euphemism for something naughty in the Cars universe?

So it goes that Mater becomes an unintentional superspy trying to thwart the machinations of a group of lemon (as in, “this car is a lemon”) gangsters bent on taking over the world because… they’ve been made fun of all their lives? Wait, what happened to the lovable lemons from the first Cars, Rusty and Dusty (played by Click and Clack from Car Talk)?

As you can tell, a lot of my angst with this movie has to do with Larry the Cable Guy and the fact that Pixar dropped pretty much all of the charm that salvaged the first movie into something watchable in favor of low-brow fart jokes and waaaaay too obvious fish out of water plays at laughs (case in point: the Wasabi sequence). Yes, I realize that millions of children would disagree with me, not to mention quite a few Larry the Cable Guy fans, but there’s a reason why there haven’t been any more LtCG starring vehicles lately (is that a pun?)... and it’s that his humor gets very old very quick.

That said, the one thing that Pixar never, ever disappoints in is imagery and attention to detail. Even through the sub-par writing, the film… is… freakin’ beautiful! From the familiar desert-scape of Radiator Springs to the bright neon lights of Tokyo and on to Italy and the UK, the Cars universe renditions of famous skylines and landscapes are utterly gorgeous.

Additionally, there are the traditional Pixar easter eggs where little send-ups to past and future Pixar films and projects are inserted into the background. In this case, two of my favorites were the mention of the Incredibles (check the drive-in theater sign in Radiator Springs) and GasTow’s in Paris (an obvious send-up to Ratatouille).

Sadly, the beautiful scenery and Pixar family tie-ins are lost in the deluge of dumb that are Mater and his antics… which are center stage for pretty much the entirety of Cars 2. This means that, for Pixar fans, the sequel to the company’s worst film (if you consider quality as opposed to profit) has supplanted it’s progenitor in the gutter.

It’s an odd paradox, I know. These films have and are making millions and will no doubt go down as the cha-chingy-est in Pixar’s pantheon thanks to all the merchandising, but still they are lowest common denominator films.

Still… if you’re a kid, it’s hard to go wrong with Mater as he’s all fart jokes and comedic action. So, if you find yourself in need of a decent kid’s movie to plop the little’uns down in front of this summer, you’d be hard pressed to go wrong since the other fare out there (Kung Fu Panda 2, The Smurfs) is much, much worse. Just be warned, there is death in this film… sadly, it comes to the wrong Cars.

P.S. - the teaser trailer for Pixar's next film The Bear and the Bow looked pretty decent... and the Toy Story short that aired before Cars 2 was hilarious. Definitely worth the cost of the ticket for the movie it was riding in front of.

- Nick Michael

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