Everything eventually comes to an end. This includes Pixar Animation’s critical streak. Up until the release of CARS 2, Pixar enjoyed an unbroken string of 11 straight films that received positive reviews from critics. I can’t really say that I’m surprised CARS 2 got trounced by the critics. For the past year, I had been hearing the warning signs that the studio had a lemon (no pun intended for those who have seen the movie) on its hands. Besides, CARS may have gotten generally good reviews, but it was by far considered the weakest of the Pixar films. For me, no amount of bad reviews would stop me from checking out CARS 2 even though I was among those who didn’t care a whole lot for CARS. Now I didn’t hate CARS 2 to the same degree that most critics did, but I could sense the mess that it used to be, the futile efforts that were made to improve that mess, and the unsatisfactory result that it ended up being. All in all, CARS 2 is everything that Pixar has always prided itself for not being: a business-oriented, merchandise machine.

CARS 2 begins with a James Bond-style sequence in which we meet British spycar Finn McMissile (Michael Caine). He has snuck aboard an oil platform to get information on what the evil scientist Professor Zundapp (Thomas Kretschmann) is up to. McMissile secretly observes a TV camera that the scientist apparently intends to use for his nefarious plans. However, McMissile is soon discovered by the professor and his goons and is pursued. The bad guys almost catch up to him, but he barely manages to escape with his life and the pictures he took of the mysterious TV camera. We next travel to Radiator Springs, where we’re reacquainted with the famous racecar, Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his friends. McQueen has been on a recent streak of winning races and he has decided to take it easy for awhile and spend some time with his girlfriend, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). However, as soon as he settles down, McQueen is persuaded into entering an international race thrown by former oil tycoon Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). McQueen also brings along his best friend, the tow truck Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) to be a part of his race crew as they travel around the world. During the Japanese leg of the race, Mater runs into McMissile and McMissile’s fellow spycar, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). The two believe Mater to be a CIA agent sent to help them stop Professor Zundapp so Mater unwillingly gets involved in their secret mission, which in turn is related to McQueen’s international race.

CARS 2 is a decidedly different film than its predecessor. The first film was a nostalgic trip to small town America whose story was weaved with themes of friendship and belonging. John Lasseter’s passion for cars was evident throughout the movie and it was what gave the film its charm. CARS 2 has shades of its former self, but its all wrapped up in a loud and fast sensory overload experience that dumps Pixar’s usual attention to storytelling and instead drills into our brains an unending series of action sequences that’s clearly intended to sell toys to kids. I’ll grant that Pixar does a commendable job in staging exciting action sequences, which I think is much harder to pull off in animation than in live action. But unlike THE INCREDIBLES, which contained great action sequences along with a wonderful narrative, CARS 2 attempts to mask its weak and convoluted plot with eye candy and explosions. It hopes that audiences will be too stupid to notice that the studio couldn’t manage to put a decent story together and so it decided to impress them with what amounts to white noise.

From what I could gather, the movie contains a subplot that explores the same themes of friendship that Pixar frequently include in its movies. Its also about accepting people for who they are rather than what you want them to be. That’s all fine and good, but when your main characters are Lightening McQueen and Mater, its difficult to care a whole lot about these themes. Between the two evils, I would rather have the film focus on McQueen, but unfortunately we’re saddled with the idiotic and painfully unfunny antics of Larry the Cable Guy essentially playing himself as Mater, the tow truck. Apparently we’re supposed to feel sorry for Mater and sympathize with him. After all, he’s completely out of his element when he decides to travel with McQueen around the world and be a part of his celeb world. What’s more, later in the film, Mater finally realizes that others laugh at him (rather than laugh with him) precisely because they view him as an idiot. Normally, such circumstances would warrant some sympathy out of most people, but Mater is so obnoxious that you can’t help but agree with everyone that he truly is an idiot. His jokes appeal to the most simple of minds, he’s loud, and he never listens or allows anyone to finish their sentence. There is absolutely nothing to like about this character and he is the same exact person (car) as he was at the beginning of the film. Mater never undergoes a character arc like he should.

I also had an issue with the theme of friendship in CARS 2. So Lightening McQueen basically tells Mater off after he loses his first race. He blames Mater for not paying attention and then he rips into him by telling Mater that he only causes problems and that he’s not needed anymore. McQueen acts like a complete celebrity diva and he only comes around after he begins winning races and he’s on the verge of winning the whole race. Its only after his career is on the uptick that he reconsiders what he said to Mater and feels bad for him. Sure, McQueen does regret the hurtful things he said to Mater, but that’s only after he’s doing well. Had the racecar continued to lose the race, I wonder if McQueen would have still regretted his behavior toward his “best friend.”

CARS 2 commits one of the most common problems seen in summer popcorn movies. Most of the films you see during the summer suffer from a weak story that doesn’t have a clear 3-act structure with clear turning points that keep the story moving. Instead of resolving their narrative problems, filmmakers will try to solve their issue by simply adding more action to the story or hurry the plot to the point where there is no let-up for the audience to catch up. CARS 2 has this problem in spades. Like I stated before, the majority of this film is a string of one action sequence after another. What’s more, the confusing plot involving the secret spy shit with the evil cartel of lemon cars and its attempts to sabotage the international race moves at such a fast speed, you are never given an opportunity to figure out just what the hell the story is about.

So what does CARS 2 do right? I didn’t care much for the car designs, but I absolutely loved the look of the film. Aside from the exotic locales that are featured in the movie (Japan, Italy, England), the textures and look of CARS 2 is at times so photorealistic that I had pangs of doubt as to whether I was really seeing something animated. This is a beautiful and fun looking film from beginning to end and once again, Pixar has raised the bar of quality animation, albeit not as high as I would normally expect from the studio.

CARS was always a curious choice for Pixar to turn into a sequel (especially considering the most obvious choice for a sequel would be THE INCREDIBLES and that’s not even being considered) so I held low expectations for this film from the moment I heard it was greenlit for production. Its obvious merchandising drove the impetus to make CARS 2 and it will undoubtedly mint a huge gold coin for Disney/Pixar and sell an assload of toys to children. I give the studio credit for trying to take CARS 2 in a whole different direction rather than go through the same old shit the original did. Nevertheless, the movie feels uninspired and unoriginal. Even the emotional core that Pixar is so good at developing in its other films feels forced here. It makes up for some of this by dazzling us with cool action sequences and a beautifully rendered film, but eye candy is not nearly enough to save the film from being forgettable in the end.

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