Cars 2 is all about Mater. Mater is Larry the Cable Guy. You do the math. Where Pixar's other efforts feature uncommonly compelling cartoon leads, the sequel to Cars revels in giving a shallow, annoying character the spotlight. With a laser focus squarely on the kiddie set, this washed up fish-out-of-water spy flick is bereft of the adult inclusive humor the animation giant is known for. Toss in a nonsense plot about NASCAR espionage, and — Oh, just go ahead and shoot me now.
Cars is widely considered the black sheep of the Pixar oeuvre. Taking place in its own bizarro universe wherein cars are surrogates for human beings, it tampered with the "Secret life of ________" formula the company perfected with toys, bugs, fish, and monsters. Cars was a curveball — a charming curveball that six year olds fell in love with. The grinning faces of Lightning McQueen and Mater now adorn bedspread, dinner plates, backpacks, and lunch pails. Sequel wise, there was clearly money to be made.
Unfortunately, Cars 2 makes Cars look positively nuanced. What little personality shined through in the original has been syphoned from the sequel's gas tank. Justly Pixar's first critical flop, there is little evidence that the celebrated company was even behind it. No humor, no heart — if it didn't say "Pixar" on the poster, I'm not sure I would have believed it myself.
At least it started well. Cars 2 opens with an exhilarating action sequence set on an oil rig in the dead of night. Michael Caine plays a sporty British Intelligence car by the name of Finn McMissile, who's scoping out a shady transaction when his cover is compromised. With visuals that reaffirm Pixar's unparalleled mastery of medium, McMissile makes his narrow escape by sea with enemies burning rubber in hot pursuit. Cut to black.
Oh no. Oh God no. We're back in Radiator Springs. Cars 2 would have been better off ditching its predecessor's cast and starting anew with a new set of cars. Instead, Lightning McQueen and Mater reunite after the former's most recent racing conquest, amicably agreeing to take on the next together. Like in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (a comedy in which none of the aforementioned vehicles are alive), their journey is soon sabotaged by the idiocy of the latter.
Naturally, the pair become embroiled in an international gasoline conspiracy, with Mater somehow being mistaken for an American spy incognito. Hold on. Imagine for a moment that Cars 2 was a live action film. Can you picture a suave secret agent mistaking Larry the Cable Guy for a spy? That's some direct-to-video shit right there. Just because they're cartoon cars doesn't make it any more believable, and yet the film routinely expects us to swallow similarly stupid scripting.
Cars had a comparably lucid plot. Its sequel falls victim to a problem that plagues so many unwarranted follow-ups in Hollywood — it's bigger for the sake of sheer one-upmanship. There isn't a compelling reason to tell another story about these characters, especially when the characters weren't particularly compelling to begin with. Owen Wilson is lifeless as Lightning McQueen, and Mater is a one-note sidekick who the hero's cape just doesn't fit.
But then, what do I know? Cars 2 is made for someone a quarter my age. From an objective storytelling perspective, however, it's Pixar's first bad film. It would be unreasonable to expect the studio to maintain a flawless record forever, and after the unchecked adulation their previous few films received, it might even help keep the company on its toes. With a sequel to Monsters, Inc. penciled in for 2013, and early talk of a Toy Story 4, they could use a little criticism.