“Toy Story 3” began with a chase. In a sequence that gave Pixar the opportunity to flex its considerable animation muscles, Woody and the gang tried to save a runaway train from a variety of toy friends turned sinister. Though images like that of a bridge collapsing from a spectacular explosion were markedly more sophisticated than those any other animation studio could ever muster, what truly distinguished this sequence for its originality was that it turned out to have all occurred in a child’s imagination. “Cars 2” begins similarly, with a pulse-pounding firefight-cum-car chase involving sleek, effortlessly fluid cars and real bullets. The striking difference is that there’s little imagination here or in the film that follows.
Perhaps it is in the nature of a racing movie to move too fast. Yet, one of the reasons the original “Cars” succeeded was that it located its memorable characters in the mind-numbingly slow town of Radiator Springs and allowed the universe to fully establish itself. “Cars 2,” by contrast, panders for excitement, bringing spying, racing and international corruption together into one slick-as-an-oil-spill package. The film relies on the character work of the first film, denying the audience any further development—excepting, possibly, Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy)—in favor of taking its successful characters on a stylish victory lap around the globe.
With the plot of “Cars 2,” Pixar has managed to insert yet another environmental message into their work. This time, Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a Hummer-substitute vehicle, is hosting a world Grand Prix where all cars must run on his new alternative fuel, Allinol. However, an international crime syndicate—humorously populated solely by poorly manufactured cars—has a vested interest in keeping the car world running on oil and has hatched a plot that will endanger protagonist Lightning (Owen Wilson) and his competitors.
Through a series of misadventures involving some of Pixar’s most lush and exciting set pieces, Mater becomes involved with two British spies who think that his stupidity is a disguise. If only this were the case. Though occasionally endearing, his uncouth, unintelligent antics dominate the movie, degrading its humor and message through lines like “Mater’s fittin’ tuh git funky!” albeit offering sporadic entertainment as when he responds to a question about whether he’s “CIA affiliated” by saying that he’s “AAA affiliated.” Mater’s two British spy friends are no more successful as characters—though the concept of giving voice and personality to a Bond car is undoubtedly whimsical, any potential the idea had is systematically drained by the flatness of the spy characters, the catch-all approach to outfitting the vehicles with gadgets, and the overemphasis on having the cars and the plot go really fast.
And then there’s the issue of humor. The jokes of “Cars 2” are simply not as good as those in the otherwise all-inclusive category of “Pixar’s Best Films.” The best Pixar jokes work by carefully observed analogy—if a mom had a superpower, she would be extremely flexible; if surfers were part of the animal kingdom, they would be turtles content to go with the flow. The basest jokes in Pixar’s repertoire are the ones that function on simple one-to-one substitution: sumo wrestlers become cars dressed like sumo wrestlers, gamblers are cars that—despite the carefully-occluded, yet undeniable difficulty of rolling dice without hands—gamble.
Analogous gags reveal the raw imaginative power of Pixar, but they also do the important work of showing that Pixar trusts and loves its audience. Pixar’s steadfast refusal to condescend to children in humor and subject matter is one of the reasons their films mean so much to audiences of all ages. The heretofore steadfastness of this resolution is why it’s so painful that the biggest gag in this film’s first Mater-Lightning sequence is simply a really big truck passing gas so violently that it blows the two cars and a nearby circle of exquisitely rendered grass to kingdom-come.
The studio makes an effort to locate meaning in the flashy vacuity of the film with a few lines about why it’s important to preserve your “dents”—stand-ins for personal scars. Thus, though Mater’s spy friends’ subterfuge technology cannot hide him due to his dents, Mater refuses to be fixed because he got those dents with Lightning before the two had a falling out. However, this potentially meaningful idea soon slips away—as Mater manages to become successfully disguised nonetheless—and it returns only briefly late in the film. All in all, the supposed moral underpinnings of the movie are thematically inconsistent and generally overlooked for the sake of keeping the international espionage plot intact.
Pixar movies are magical because they seem to craft totally unique yet coherent worlds, the lessons of which are readily assimilated to our own. Though a film is ostensibly about superheroes or a rat, it somehow resonates with a human audience and imbues the external world with its tremendous warmth and emotional intelligence. Thus, while the themes and character types of Pixar’s films bear the weight of the real world, the filmmakers estrange them from their familiar contexts by placing them in the more accessible lands of imagination. From this superficial distance, lessons about ourselves and the world we share are made that much clearer and more lasting. But in “Cars 2,” it seems the punchline of every joke and plot point could be replaced with an all-too-obvious “Look! It’s our world…only all cars!” For a studio that has made some of the best films of any medium, that lack of imaginative and emotional engagement seems a wrong turn.