Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2 (2011, John Lasseter)

Since its release in 2006, the original Cars has gotten a rep as being one of Pixar’s least successful releases- from a creative standpoint anyway, since Pixar and corporate overlord Disney have made enough money from grosses, DVD sales, and particularly merchandising to power the economies of countless small countries. But while sheer economics demanded a sequel, I had some hope that it wouldn’t just be a cash-in and excuse to manufacture tons of Lightning McQueen bric-a-brac. So give Lasseter some credit for building the sequel’s story not around McQueen but instead around the story’s least photogenic character, the aw-shucks tow truck Mater. After all, though Mater was one of the original’s more memorable characters, he’s not a high-performance machine, and as such doesn’t lend himself to having his miniature doppelgangers zoomed around on a playroom floor.

However, I’m sad to say that the new story focus doesn’t really work. In the original film, Mater was good for some laughs, especially in the unlikely ways he cozied up to new arrival and future best friend Lightning. Unfortunately, his increased screen time reveals that Mater isn’t a very deep character, with little more to him than backwoods befuddlement and an encyclopedic knowledge of cars that comes from a lifetime working on them, which isn’t quite enough to sustain a feature-length story. What’s more, Larry the Cable Guy’s performance, which was a nice surprise in the first film, quickly becomes overbearing here, especially in scenes that require him to be wacky in the midst of deadly serious business. And considering the film’s story drops Mater into an espionage plot (Nathan Rabin of the AV Club smartly references the 1997 Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little), there are too many of these scenes to overlook.

That said, there’s still enough good stuff to recommend the movie. While the first film relied too much on small-town charm (its “slow down and appreciate the little things” theme was handled better, and more succinctly, in the Andy Griffith Show episode “The Sermon For Today”), the tone here is zippier and more action-oriented, as befitting the movie’s spy-movie influences. And as with every new Pixar release, the studio’s animation wizards continue to push the envelope visually, especially in the detail and texture of the settings- several shots in the film, especially in London, could be mistaken for actual footage if not for Mater’s presence in them. And to be fair, Mater does have some good moments, especially those involving some added features he gets to work undercover. All in all, it’s a little better than the original- no great shakes to be sure, and another of Pixar’s lesser efforts, but with a real sense of fun that makes it worth seeing.

Rating: 6 out of 10.